The other night on The Daily Show, for his first TV interview since the epochal revelation that his girlfriend had cheated on him with her director, Robert Pattinson sat across from Jon Stewart, each digging into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream like two high-school girls on a heartbreak binge. The movieland romance of Rpattz and Kstew might be history — or might not, since the subject was never baldly broached — but a famous fella could still get consolation from a stranger.
That eight-minute exchange was likely watched by more people than will ever see Cosmopolis, the film in which Pattinson tries to stretch beyond the Twilight parameters to be considered a daring, serious actor. The Daily Show interview certainly contained more suspense (will Jon Stewart say the name Kristen Stewart?) and emotional connection than anything in the David Cronenberg film of Don DeLillo’s apocalyptic, prophetic, satirical novel about a day in the life of Eric Packer, the 28-year-old money-manipulating billionaire played by Pattinson.
(READ: Jessica Winter talks with Pattinson and Cronenberg)
“You have to die,” says an agitated little man pointing a gun at Packer, “for how you think and act. For your apartment and what you paid for it. For your daily medical checkups. This alone. Medical checkups every day. For how much you had and how much you lost, equally. No less for losing it than making it. For the limousine that displaces air that people need to breathe in Bangladesh. This alone.”
It sounds like the dream rant of some splinter protestor from the Occupy Wall Street peacenik commune in 2011-12. It’s actually the prosecutorial summation of one Benno Levin, a disgruntled ex-employee of Packer’s, in DeLillo’s 2003 book. The righteous, possibly impotent rage that coursed through the Occupiers and millions of other Americans in the last three years of economic polarity had bubbled in Benno’s blood long before. (The story is set in April 2000, the time when the tech bubble burst.)
(READ: Corliss’s Twilight review)
A movie version of DeLillo’s autopsy of capitalist excess, as adapted and directed by Canada’s master of all things gruesome, ought to have the sting of some contemporary headline about the billions gambled and lost by sharpies on Wall Street and in investment banks around the world. Instead, this vapid, claustrophobic drama proves nothing but the wayward attempt of Twilight’s demon lover to trade in his vampire fangs for a plutocrat’s snarl.
At this May’s Cannes Film Festival, where Cosmopolis had its world premiere, Cronenberg anticipated that journalists would ignore Pattinson’s Eric to concentrate on his Edward, remarking, “It’s very easy to say this movie is about a vampire or werewolf of Wall Street or blood-sucking capitalism — but it’s not.” Pattinson, who always seems either nervous or bored in interviews, added, “Maybe I’m just a depressive, but I feel the world needs to be washed and cleaned every once in a while.”
He must have meant a car wash. The story of a rich man’s day-long crosstown-Manhattan odyssey for no greater purpose than to get a haircut, Cosmopolis keeps the viewer seat-belted across from Packer in the back of his stretch limo. A king on his motorized throne, he receives visits from various courtiers in his employ — his financial advisor (Samantha Morton), his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) and a couple of whiz kids — while he endures a proctology exam and traffic is slowed to a crawl for a Presidential visit and a proto-Occupy demonstration. His driver (Kevin Durand) has also warned him that someone is out to kill him. That would be Benno.
In his early flowering in the mid-’70s, Cronenberg created and directed nightmare scenarios of ordinary people getting infected by a malignancy as invisible and pervasive as the most swinish flu virus. In They Came from Within, it was a small, snouty bug, transmitted from mouth to mouth during sex. In Rabid it was a bloodsucking organ that sprouts from the carrier’s armpit. In The Brood and Scanners it was the mind itself, splitting the nuclear family and precipitating a psychic apocalypse. His masterpiece, a 1986 remake of the ’50s horror film The Fly, cast Jeff Goldblum as a scientist both fascinated and repelled by his gradual transformation into a giant uggy insect. Poignant, profound and sad-funny, The Fly certified Cronenberg’s status as the cinema’s premier poet of emotional and corporal degeneration.
(LIST: Find David Cronenberg’s The Fly on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)
Since then, except for a larkish adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and the schizo scherzo Spider, both crawling with outlandish hallucinations, the Cronenberg oeuvre has had a lower startle quotient. Now a director of other people’s stories (no film from his own original script since the 1999 eXistenZ), he can manage a property with sick snap (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) or a lush neuroticism (A Dangerous Method).
I’d gladly accept either of those approaches to the airlessness of Cosmopolis. Undoubtedly tantalized by the challenge of shooting most of a movie on a “set” no larger than a Munchkin’s prison cell, Cronenberg is further cramped by the character of Eric Packer, who might be a rapacious young corporate type out of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho. The difference is that Psycho’s Patrick Bateman killed and mutilated people (or imagined he did). Packer just waits for the world to come to him, or for his world to end.
(MORE: Corliss on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method)
Hannah Arendt cauterized Nazism as “the banality of evil”; Packer must represent the blandness of ultimate power. Coiled and mostly inert, he evinces none of the go-getter energy of Wall Street tykes on the make. Maybe he welcomes the death promised by Benno (Paul Giamatti) — in a 22-minute final act that includes most of the speech I quoted at the beginning but has no propulsive power or threat of its own.
Pattinson doesn’t help. Arguably the most passive actor in the history of movie dreamboats, he gives an unmodulated performance with little hint of a man growing or, for that matter, wilting. He’s a handsome mannequin dressed to kill but not destined to come alive. And though Pattinson gets credit for wanting to work with Cronenberg on the film (after Colin Farrell dropped out), he neither overcomes his lover-boy image nor infuses Packer with the saturnine charm of his signature role.
Instead of running alongside the limo, as Packer’s toadies figuratively do, I felt like a prisoner who had glumly noticed the back door’s unlock buttons were controlled by the driver. You risk your life, Mr. Packer, for a haircut at John Edwards prices. I’ll get mine at the Barber College for six bucks. Or better yet, I’ll drown my own disappointment in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Just, please, let me out!