Although it’s hardly the best of his recent work, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis feels like the first real Cronenberg movie in more than a decade. Eastern Promise and The End of Violence have their virtues — less so the flavorless A Dangerous Method — but they felt impersonal if not quite anonymous, like audition reels for an action-movie career he never wanted. Cosmopolis, by contrast, is a full-bore art-house movie, deliberately pretentious (not a value judgment here), often stultifying and sometimes simply dead on arrival. The movie is doubly trapped inside Don DeLillo’s source novel and the stretch limousine belonging to protagonist Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a billionaire finance whiz whose air-conditioned coffin creeps its way back and forth across a traffic-choked metropolis. The conversations in Cosmopolis take place in a world of abstraction, an environment less hospitable to recognizable human emotions than it is to sentences like “She thought I was dissolvable in water.”
Cronenberg has worked in this register before — in Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, among others — but without the grounding force of eros, Cosmopolis feels like it’s sheathed in latex. When Eric and his newlywed wife (Sarah Gadon) discuss their sex life — or the potential for one — it has the nothing-personal tenor of a business negotiation. Gadon and Pattinson have the waxy pallor of mortuary tenants; no sparkly vamp-twinkles here. Exploring what Eric calls “the intersection of technology and culture,” Cosmopolis plays out as a series of stilted two-handers. “Money,” Samantha Morton’s advisor explains, “has lost its narrative qualities,” and so has the film, at least until the much-needed jolt of the final reel, when Paul Giamatti’s desperate assassin finally shows his sweat-streaked face. It’s a masterful finish to what up to that point feels like a pure exercise, doubtless more thrilling for the utter airlessness of what precedes it.