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In 10th grade I wrote a small play, full of symbolism, a new word for me back then, about a kid who takes a ride on a department store elevator, which we performed in Mr. Wolk’s English class. The different floors were supposed to represent the different stages of the kid’s life, etc., until he arrived at the top floor, where, of course ...
I think I got a B-.
“Cosmopolis,” directed by David Cronenberg, and based upon a novel by Don DeLillo, is a dreamlike limousine ride through New York City that is representative of a life. During the course of the day-long journey, the 28-year-old billionaire assets manager in the backseat, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), loses everything—tie, jacket, wife, fortune—then arrives at the end of the line, where, of course... Or I should say maybe...? Cronenberg doesn’t pull the trigger.
I’ll give him a B-.
Packer is in a stretch limo in the first place, with bodyguards patrolling the perimeter, to get a haircut across town. But he keeps running into obstacles. The president is in town (“The president of the United States,” he’s told, when he asks which president), so traffic’s a bitch. Then there’s an anti-corporate protest against corporate mucky-mucks like him—more Battle in Seattle than Occupy Wall Street—and a funeral for a Sufi rap star. As a result, the limo, moving slowly downtown, becomes his rolling office. People enter and exit like they’ve been waiting on the sidewalk all day.
His first seatmate is his start-up partner, Shiner (Jay Baruchel), who feels left behind. He can’t keep up. Neither can we, really. There’s technobabble talk of a “bot” that keeps getting faster and faster in exploiting market inefficiencies, until it, and Packer, never live in the present. They’re always in the future. Or futures. Doesn’t he say this? “Why can I see the future?” Packer asks. Or does he say “can’t”? Early on, Packer sounds like Holden Caulfield with the ducks when he wonders where all the white limos go at the end of the day. Shiner sounds like Fenwick in “Diner” when he says, “You ever get the feeling you don’t know what’s going on?”
Other seatmates include a 22-year-old whiz kid who’s still excited by the numbers (Philip Nozuka); a doctor there for Packer’s daily checkup; and an older French mistress (Juliette Binoche), whom he fucks in the backseat, and who tells him of an available Rothko when he’s interested in a chapel, an entire chapel, that he wants to buy and put in his condo. Whole. They talk over the efficacy and morality of this.
She: People need to see it.
He: Let them buy it. Let them outbid me.
Packer always asks his seatmates “What else?” because he feeds off information even though the most basic information—the president’s in town, one of his favorite singers has died—escapes him. “What do you do exactly?” Elise (Sarah Gadon) asks him at one point. “You know things. I think this is what you do. I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful.” She’s his wife, we find out. At first I thought she was merely a taxi-cab pick up. Then I realized: no, she’s his fiancée. At the diner, she’s his wife, and by the end they’re divorced. A life together in a limo ride. Modern life.
Some of the conversational back-and-forth is fascinating. (“When I was four,” he tells Elise, “I figured out how much I weighed on all the planets in the solar system.”) Other times, it merely sounds like clever tweets. (“Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”) Throughout, nobody really listens to anyone. It’s like a “Seinfeld” conversation except dreamy, gloomy, and not funny.
Let’s ask the basic question of Packer that we ask of all of our protagonists: What does the guy want? I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows. He seems to be a man trying to feel something again. That’s why the limo ride to the haircut in the first place. It’s where he got his haircuts when he was a kid. Since Packer lives in the future, or futures, where nothing can be felt, he tries to feel via his past. His present certainly isn’t doing it for him. In the backseat of the stretch limo, which looks like the inside of the Batmobile, and which he initially rides as if he’s Capt. Kirk on the U.S.S. Enterprise, he does whatever he can to feel something. He screws his mistress (Julie Binoche) and has a lengthy prostate exam (his prostate is asymmetrical). Later he screws one of his security guards (Patricia McKenzie) in a nearby hotel, which Cronenberg films as if it’s as cramped and claustrophobic as the limo. When anti-capitalist forces rock the limo, Packer doesn’t react. As he’s losing his fortune, Packer doesn’t react...much. Some critics blame Pattinson for this but it’s obviously the point. What can make him feel again? Why not get out of the limo and walk? He’s the boy-king, trapped, and eventually he kills his bodyguard and dismisses his driver and stands in the dirty streets where an assassin, Beno Levin, (Paul Giamatti), an ex-employee, takes potshots at him. Only then does he come alive again. For a moment. But the confrontation with Levin is a letdown. Levin’s motivation, he says, “is not original.” Eventually Packer shoots his own hand. Then he feels something. But not enough. The awful dreamlike state continues. Until it doesn’t.
Cronenberg does dreamlike well, of course, and the movie’s themes (wealth inequality, living the future, creating a life that speeds past us) are all extremely relevant. But early on I didn’t care what was happening, and I never got back to caring. The man who feels nothing is a dull protagonist. Other people’s dreams are a drag. I also felt about Packer’s ride the way Packer felt about Levin’s motivation. It’s not very original. See: “The Swimmer,” “Heart of Darkness,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and my 10th-grade play.
September 10, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard