Pretty Boys Gone Wild, Part 2: Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis

The Twilight star plays a young billionaire on a crosstown death ride in David Cronenberg's bland denunciation of wretched excess

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Prospero Pictures

Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson made their names as the pretty-boy stars of franchises for tween and teen girls: Efron as the dancing prom king in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical series, Pattinson as Edward the sensitive vampire in The Twilight Saga. Now working to establish their credibility as serious actors, they’ve come to Cannes in two challenging melodramas. Our reviews follow.

“You have to die,” says the agitated little man pointing a gun at the 28-year-old money-manipulating billionaire Eric 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 Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, published in 2003. The righteous 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: Richard Corliss’s Twilight review)

So a movie version of DeLillo’s prophetic autopsy of capitalist excess, as adapted and directed by David Cronenberg, Canada’s master of all things gruesome, ought to have the sting of a headline about the JPMorgan Chase smart guy who lost $2 billion on a bad bet. It could at least carry the angry ache of a Paul Krugman op-ed piece, like today’s “Egos and Immorality,” on the Wall Street one-percenters.

Instead, this vapid, claustrophobic drama proves nothing but the emptiness of the Cannes Film Festival’s current tactic for reaping worldwide publicity: giving some of its choicest spots in the 12-day program to B-plus directors’ middling-to-awful films starring young actors with an avid teen following. On Wednesday, The Twilight Saga’s Kristen Stewart in On the Road. Yesterday, High School Musical graduate Zac Efron in The Paperboy. And today, Robert Pattinson, Stewart’s Twilight costar (and boyfriend), trading in vampire fangs for a plutocrat’s snarl.

None of the films is worthy of a major film festival. They are here simply for the entertainment news value of celebrities in their 20s ascending the red-carpeted steps to the Grand Palais theater. The movies shown inside are less important than the photos the paparazzi snap and send around the world. Far fewer photos, we’ll warrant, were taken of the 80-something actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as they walked into the world premiere of Michael Haneke’s Amour, the favorite to win the top-prize Palme d’Or Sunday evening. You can hear a tabloid editor saying, “They’re old and wrinkled and who are they? Get me a shot of somebody young and beautiful and famous: the swoony vampire guy from Twilight.”

(MORE: Richard Corliss on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method)

Anticipating that journalists would ignore Pattinson’s Eric to concentrate on his Edward, Cronenberg announced at the post-film press conference that “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.” (In all the reviews I’ve read, I haven’t found one vampire joke.) Freed from having to discuss his most popular movie role, but still as nervous as he’s seemed in TV interviews, the actor lurched into a meandering monologue that made him sound like Benno Levin on the verge of a giggle fit.

“Maybe I’m just a depressive,” Pattinson said, “but I feel the world needs to be washed and cleaned every once in a while.” Stopping to criticize himself for “rambling,” he explained, “Actors aren’t supposed to be intelligent. I feel like I’m making an idiot of myself. Why can’t I just answer the question?” It was the most curious performance at a Cannes press conference since Lars von Trier talked himself into saying, “O.K., I’m a Nazi,” and was declared persona non grata at last year’s festival. But Pattinson wasn’t as funny.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises)

The pertinent question for Cronenberg would be “Why Cosmopolis?” The story of a rich man’s day-long crosstown-Manhattan odyssey for no greater purpose than to get a haircut, the film 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 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.

(READ: Mary Corliss on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence)

Hannah Arendt cauterized Nazism as “the banality of evil”; Packer must represent the blandness of ultimate power. Corrupt but passive, 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 the speech I quoted at the beginning but has no propulsive power or threat.

Pattinson doesn’t help. His unmodulated performance gives 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 (after Colin Farrell dropped out), he neither overcomes his lover-boy image nor infuses Packer with the saturnine charm of his signature role. You wonder what Twilight fans will think when they see Cosmopolis. Actually, they won’t. The word will get out.

(LIST: The Top 10 Movies of the Millennium, Thus Far)

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. Just, please, let me out!