Cosmopolis: A huge throbbing chainsaw and a cream pie

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Right before I entered the theater to see Cosmopolis, a 2012 film written and directed by David Cronenberg from a 2003 Don DeLillio novel, a fellow middle-aged lady asked me why I had decided on seeing it. “I almost went,” she said,  “but people kept telling me how boring it was, and so I decided on something else.” She said the name of the movie she had decided on; I forget which one.

I told her that I had heard the same thing, but I liked Cronenberg movies. I had read mixed reviews regarding Pattinson. Having worked in casting in a previous incarnation of my professional self, I was curious to see what kind of chops this young actor was sporting since he traded in his fangs.

Okay, let’s get this over with. The dialogue of the Cosmopolis script is dense, artificial, and extremely inaccessible. Do you think I came up with the “huge throbbing chainsaw” on my own? Nope, it was one of the script’s many gems. The entire script reminds me of those scenes I’d get assigned in acting class when I was at UCLA. Existential works are often assigned to nineteen-year old students, who spend a lot of time imagining their glorious futures. We’d mouth lines, pretending to know what was going on, and since most of our fellow students were as clueless as I was, it wasn’t a total humiliation. In fact, this script might have worked better in a theater in terms of audience enjoyment. In theater, audiences are an active part of the experience.

Movies are inclusive, but movie audiences are passive. The aim is to immerse you in a point of view and in a world. For the most part, when watching films, you feel rather than think. That’s how movies communicate–by manipulating our responses.

I think that deprivation is the point. Cronenberg wants us to feel like outsiders, straining to understand what is going on behind those tinted limo windows.

In Cosmopolis, a character remarks on how the future is cannibalizing the present, and time is broken up into infinitesimally smaller bits. People can’t keep up with how fast things change or deal with the necessary “creative destruction.” Eric Packer (Pattison), a self-made multi-billionaire recalls that when he was four, he calculated how much he would weigh on each planet of our solar system. The kid must have been interesting to potty-train.

One thing hasn’t changed. Eric, the protagonist of Cosmopolis, is every bit as bloodless as Edward the lovesick vampire. Most of the action takes place in the interior of a white stretch limo where Eric, a 28 year old self-made capitalist, holds court. Along the way, various minions enter the womb-like limo interior. We see all the symbols of wealth on numerous small screens, but the only tangible evidence is isolation from the damage caused by the machinations of the rich and entitled. Eric stares impassively through the bullet-proof windows at the rage of on-going riots. One by one, these employees report and/or perform. Reports he receives from two of his even younger male staffers reveal that Eric has lost all of his money and all the capital of his clients. The news has no effect on him. He’s restless and bored. Two of the women, including his art dealer/mistress (Juliette Binoche) bask in his attention, reflecting back to him his narcissistic approval. One employee (Emily Hampshire), forced to interrupt her day off, strokes the nozzle of her water bottle as a doctor (inside the limo, which hosts an ultrasound and mini-lab) performs what for Eric, is a highly erotic prostate exam. Eric’s attention to the woman ends as the exam ends. He is only affected by the doctor’s comment that his prostate is asymmetrical.

I’ve known people like Eric. There’s an unspoken message: Impress me; entertain me. Make me care; make me notice. And the people in Eric’s small world do try. It’s not enough. Eric has a hard time feeling anything. His outer shell is a white limo that becomes increasingly defaced as it crosses through an urban nightmare. Several times, during the course of the day, he encounters his new wife, an equally bloodless blonde. Each time, he coerces her into having a meal with him. She rejects him sexually, saying that her writing (she’s a poet) takes too much of her energy. Her rejection is what he finds compelling.

When his “I deal in theory” servant (Samantha Morton) sniffs at the sight of a man self-immolating on a sidewalk, dismissing it as an unoriginal gesture (it’s been done), Eric wonders at all that pain to just make a statement, to say something.

The movie is a journey. Ulysses, the character from Homer’s epic, The Odyssey (okay technically he’s Odysseus), as well as James Joyce’s novel  inspired DeLillio. Both works (Ulysses) were also an influence on Mark Rothko, the artist whose “Rothko Chapel” Eric means to buy. Talk about entitlement; Eric assumes everything’s for sale. The trip is a slow crawl through Manhattan traffic, its street arteries clotted by a POTUS visit. “We (as in the royal we) want a hair cut.” Eric announces. The barbershop in question is across town. It is a space, that for Eric, means the comfort of the familiar–mirrored walls, swivel chairs, etc. He dismisses his bodyguard’s warning that someone means to kill him. This devourer of the future craves the illusion of the past.

Very little elicits an emotional response from Eric or from us, the audience. One sweet exception is a cream pie that is smashed into titan boy’s face. The pie is wielded by a man with his own film crew. The man, who has smashed pies into the faces of countless heads of power, assures Eric that he’s nonpartisan. Castro got served too. So after a spectacularly bad hair cut, and an off-the-wall murder, Eric faces his end in a run-down building, at the hands of a bare-foot, hang dog (even more than usual), former employee (Paul Giamatti). Before he was downsized, this employee went nuts trying to keep up with the rate of changes in the way things are calculated.  How’s that singularity thingy workin’ out for ya?  Now the man has no identity. For him, “no identity” means no appointments, no plans, and no credit card receipts.

Eric forgot, the man accuses him, that all the Universe’s symmetry and repetition means nothing without the isolated exception, an exception, like the asymmetrical prostate, a benign condition he and Eric both have.  Worse, this man has a fungus between his toes, and it urges him to kill Eric. In the words of the long-ago church lady, “Isn’t that special?” Eric has failed to save him, you see, and so Eric must die. Eric doesn’t seem too concerned. Death is new; it’s something he hasn’t done.

We all have this in common: We fear death and want someone to make it better. Some of us find comfort in religion and others in superheroes. No wonder vampires are so popular. Unlike zombies, you’re undead and you get have sex and you keep your marbles (smarts).

As far as Pattinson’s chops go, he’s got them. The vivid desperation of the other characters collides with the impassivity of Pattinson’s face. He’s a neutral so that the colors are more vivid.  I’ll be interested to see what he does and how he is cast as he ages. I think he’ll welcome the chance to do character work, and I hope he can keep working.

Regardless, I suspect some of those scenes will be showing up in actor showcases. There are some things that don’t change.

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