Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: "Cosmopolis"

A deeply unaffecting journey through a labyrinth of high finance and base humanity, "Cosmopolis" is a parable with no punch.

Based on the novel by Don DeLillo, unread by me, writer/director David Cronenberg has given us a highly stylized affair with a string of actors delivering long, rambling exchanges of dialogue with all the portentousness of a Shakespearean drama and all the coherence of a psychoanalysis session.

What is meant to be deadly serious is often quite silly, when it's not stultifyingly dull.

The action takes place largely inside a luxurious stretch limousine over the course of a single day. Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire, decides he needs a haircut. This being New York City, getting there takes a very long time, additionally complicated by a visit by the President and a street funeral procession for a beloved rap artist.

Along the way Packer picks up and dispenses passengers, including underlings (Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton, Emily Hampshire among them), his current mistress (Juliette Binoche) for an in-car romp, and his newly-married wife Elise (Sarah Gadon). They mostly talk about their finance schemes, including a risky bet against the Chinese yuan.

At one point Packer, who receives a physical exam from a doctor every single day, converses with a female employee while receiving a thorough prostate exam that leaves him quivering with ... something.

To these people, money is not just power but fodder for outwardly deep intellectual discussions about life, humanity and destiny. "Capital is intent," asserts one flunky, whose job title includes the word "theory," a moniker that suggests a visit from the SEC may be forthcoming.

"People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do," another says, and he's got a better handle. Packer is like the Wizard of Oz, existing behind a carefully guarded veil that hides him from the 99 percent, who object not just to their lack but to the shameless way he exerts his surplus.

Certainly, Packer's trappings suggest the rarified world in which he lives. His limo puts the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise to shame, replete with glowing blue lights and computer screens -- even a bar stocked with booze and snacks, plus a convenient way to dispose of the resulting byproducts. At one point, he inquires about purchasing a famous chapel, ancient stone walls and all, and having it sequestered in his apartment.

There are mysterious references to The Complex, a shadowy group that seems to know about impending events before they actually happen, such as a spontaneous Occupy Wall Street-type uprising complete with people immolating themselves, or an important global finance minister being brutally attacked on live television.

How do they know these things? Is The Complex reading the very vibrations of the collective human unconscious to discern what lies in its soul? Or, more likely, is it just a bunch of apocalyptic-sounding mumbo-jumbo?

Torval (Kevin Durand), Packer's hulking chief of security, walks on foot outside the creeping limousine, occasionally poking his head in the window to pass on new threat calculations from The Complex.

Packer does eventually get out of his car, which only leads to stranger encounters. He tries repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to entice his wife, who is practically a stranger to him, to have sex. We eventually meet the driver of the limo, and the barber. And the Pastry Assassin. (You'll see.) Things culminate with a potentially deadly confrontation with a deranged(?) man (Paul Giamatti) who claims to know everything there is to know about Packer.

The characters speak to each other in off-putting formal tones, like grad students debating in a philosophy seminar. "I know this" is an oft-repeated line, as if they were trying to pinpoint their place in the universe by demonstrating how much knowledge they possess, and how they wield it to crush or be crushed.

An ambitious disaster, "Cosmopolis" is a preening, pretentious mess of a movie. I know this.

1.5 stars out of four

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