In movies like "eXistenZ" (how's that for a title?), "The Fly," and "Crash," David Cronenberg has demonstrated an interest in unusual combinations of the biological and the mechanical. In his latest work, "Cosmopolis," he attempts to explore some more abstract territory, the world of a currency manipulator who handles all his business through a bank of computers in his customized stretch limousine, and occasionally discusses philosophical matters with a succession of assistants and advisors. Apparently without a tinge of irony, Cronenberg cast Robert Pattinson, one of the most passively robotic actors in contemporary film, in the role of the protagonist, Eric Packer, a more or less living embodiment of that favorite Cronenberg combination.
Quite closely based on a novel of the same name by the highly regarded Don DeLillo, the movie shows one day in the life of a young billionaire who unconcernedly loses his fortune by betting against — or is it on? — the yuan, not exactly the stuff of dramatic or exciting cinema. Packer spends the day in his limo, crossing the congested streets of Manhattan, moving glacially through traffic backed up by a presidential visit, a rap singer's funeral, and anarchist demonstrators swinging dead rats around, protesting against capitalists like him.
Enormously long, cork lined ("Prousted" as he calls it), and equipped with all the appropriate modern conveniences, the limo provides both the plot and almost the entire setting of "Cosmopolis." Packer receives a series of visits from employees, with whom he converses in the grandest philosophical terms about identity, the systems he operates, the acquisitions he plans, and the meaning of capitalism and money itself; appropriately, one assistant even describes herself as his chief of theory, surely a new position in the world of high finance.
Packer also conducts other sorts of business, all of it in a strangely affectless manner, speaking in a low monotone, and maintaining an absolutely blank countenance. While conversing with one of his female assistants, for example, he undergoes a prostate examination, surely a cinematic first (his "asymmetrical" prostate worries him throughout the story); he also has sex with Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche), who advises him on art purchases, and later with one of his female bodyguards. On a couple of occasions he encounters his wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), as deadpan and unemotive as he, to discuss whether they have actually ever consummated their marriage, which by that time seems both irrelevant and colossally uninteresting.
After Packer commits a couple of acts of gratuitous violence, he and his limo ultimately reach their destination, a journey that amounts to a visit to his past, and the movie eventually reaches its climax in a long, exasperating, and meaningless conversation with a massively disgruntled former employee, Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti). Levin worked for Packer on another currency, the baht, which he claims to have loved — it's that kind of story — but now seeks revenge against his boss, apparently simply because he exists.
Presumably in keeping with the emptiness of the story and the impassivity of the protagonist, just about everyone in this very talky film speaks in an occasionally inaudible monotone, exhibiting virtually no variation in feeling or sensation; even the sex looks perfunctory and unexciting. The cryptic, abstract dialogue, which often depends upon rhetorical questions and puzzling non sequiturs, emphasizes the vacuum of significance or even value at the center of the picture.
In fairness to David Cronenberg, "Cosmopolis" owes much of its dreadfulness to its source in Don DeLillo's novel, an absolutely unconvincing exercise in intellectual sterility and emotional emptiness. The book suggests some of the problems with a substantial amount of contemporary American fiction, much of it the product of academic study and suffocating theory and all those classes in creative writing. It contains no convincing characters, no sense of reality, of felt life or experience, but trades on an essentially genteel fantasy of trendy nihilism, one of the chief products in DeLillo's stock in trade. A precious, finely sculpted work, dense with abstraction but hollow at its core, the novel, to steal a line from another of my favorite authors in an entirely different context, reminds me of an expensive whore: it displays great technique, but no love.