Tuesday, August 14, 2012
COSMOPOLIS: A REVIEW
My favorite part of Don DeLillo's Underworld, which I haven't read since I was 20 when I thought it was the greatest novel ever written, was the periodic reappearance of Lenny Bruce, screaming “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!” at his stand-up shows. Not just because Lenny Bruce is fucking rad—which should go without saying—but because he and that bit were an essential part of what the book was about, which (not to be too reductive) is that everything is, to varying degrees, fucked. That's one thing I've always liked about DeLillo: no matter how opaque and dense he can get (and whoa can he), his particular brand of ease with the universe going to hell in a hand basket really hits the spot sometimes. David Cronenberg, in adapting DeLillo's 2003 novel Cosmopolis, has a perfect ear for that particular note, and the movie (which hits theaters this Friday) is a near-perfect harmony between novelist and adapter-director, and might be the best movie of Cronenberg's career.
That's a heavy statement, I know, since Mr. Cronenberg hasn't exactly had his thumb up his ass these forty-some years. And yes, “best” is a tricky and fungible quantity in the arts, but Cosmopolis really is that good. The novel was received critically with an eye roll + jerkoff gesture by most book critics, and there was a whole lot of “Well, it ain't Underworld” being tossed around. Which sucks, but is kinda unavoidable when the followup to A Very Big Book (or album or film etc) isn't as Very Big or is different in some way. Cosmopolis was a slim, very strange book that had the the dual bad timing of coming out a) right when all the first novels about 9/11 were and being a little weirder and more detached than the rest, and b) five years before the culmination of George W. Bush's presidency, the 2008 financial crisis. Context definitely works to Cronenberg's advantage adapting Cosmopolis for the screen now, because now this story of a Master-of-the-Universe financial titan's surreal downward spiral resonates in a way it couldn't as initially written by DeLillo, history not having caught up to it yet. (For another example of this, check out how all of a sudden everyone respects Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers as the satirical, Brechtian masterpiece it is now that they saw the War on Eastasia—er, sorry, Terror—unfold and stuff.)
Now, from the first tight, low-angle shot of a series of limousines, Cosmopolis is very much Where We Are in 2012. It is this without being, in any way at all, a naturalistic movie. Cronenberg keeps as much of DeLillo's dense, stylized, elliptical dialogue as possible, and plays with time and space to lend a dream-like quality to the protagonist's journey across Manhattan on a whim to get a haircut. What starts as a wry joke about how fucked up the traffic gets in New York (complications include a presidential visit and a funeral procession for a Sufi rapper, nothing too heavy by normal standards) turns into a metaphor for the stultification of the modern world by global finance and its attendant obsessions with security and order. Over the course of the movie, the inherent instability of the system and the impermanence of power are laid bare as protagonist Eric Packer and his space-age limo devolve in tandem, each mirroring the other's decay. Cronenberg's direction is about as good as it gets here, with the visual journey perfectly complimenting the narrative, as formally perfect a movie as one could possibly hope for.
Holding everything together is Robert Pattinson's performance in the lead. He's good. He's real good. He starts out this icy, remote, almost alien being, then gradually and with the same exquisite precision as Cronenberg's direction, reveals emotional colors, vulnerability, hunger, desire, raw open nerves. Over the course of the movie, as shit gets weirder and the world he's known (and basically ruled) all his life collapses, it's endlessly fascinating to watch the way Pattinson plays Eric Packer's fascination with his own (self-orchestrated) undoing. I'll stop before I get too specific, but goddamn if Pattinson isn't simply tremendous in this movie. If this performance is any indication, he'll do just fine post-Twilight. The dude can act his motherfuckin' ass off, and I hear chicks dig him, so he's got that going for him as well.
But yeah, Cosmopolis is great. Everything and everyone is basically fucked, and while “cheerful” isn't quite the right word to describe the way DeLillo and Cronenberg convey this idea, it's weirdly not far off. Cronenberg's stunning visual ideas and set pieces (like, respectively, the pervading references to rats and that related “holy fucking shit” protest scene in Times Square) may make some people a little uncomfortable, but they certainly don't seem to be doing that to the director. You can palpably feel Cronenberg enjoying himself, I mean having a fucking blast, for almost the entirety of Cosmopolis: “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!” Which is, alas, true. But one thing Cosmopolis gets it right in its particular ultra-cerebral, meticulously strange way is that it's really all about the journey. Because it is.