I had some vacation days saved up and decided to do something exotic and take a smelly train into a biggish city: Philadelphia, the city that Ben Franklin, a syphilitic deist, built. Which explains all the hospitals. But I digress.
Center City Philly enjoys three theaters that feature small, independent, and foreign films, and so I thought I’d indulge. My final choices came down to Robot and Frank, starring the great Frank Langella (who I once gave career advice to while sitting in the Citicorp food court on Lexington Avenue; he was extremely polite); Celeste and Jesse Forever, starring the exquisite Rashida Jones; and Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Crash, A History of Violence) and starring that pale guy from Twilight.
Guess which one the genius picked.
Now I know you’ve been chomping at the bit to see this flick. Which is to say, you had no idea it was even in theaters. That’s what I’m here for: to tell you, my herrings, about the films you didn’t know you wanted to see and, of course, never will.
Cosmopolis is based on the novel by Don DeLillo (White Noise, Libra, Underworld), which is no excuse. Another entry in the “let’s capture the Occupy moment on film,” there was potential for quite a potent snapshot of the current tensions in the culture.
Imagine this: a Taxi Driver for 2012. In the 1976 original, a disaffected Vietnam vet trapped in his own head tries to make sense of a chaotic and decaying urban landscape by resorting to a vain and crude act of “heroism” (“someday a real rain is going to come and wash all this scum off the streets”), playing John Wayne on mean streets that long ago abandoned the values that gave Wayne’s persona any meaning. The young maiden whom Travis Bickle, the Taxi Driver, tries to save from the predations of pimps and gangsters wasn’t snatched from her home (think Natalie Wood in The Searchers), but in fact ran away and never expresses any great desire to be “saved.”
Fast forward to 2011, where the “scum” of the streets throw dead rats (signs of society’s coming reckoning) on unsuspecting diners and cram cream pies in the faces of business executives. Now imagine that the antihero, the one through whose eyes we see this strange new world, is not Robert DeNiro, but rather the character Martin Scorsese played, the sleazy businessman whose wife is having an affair and who has Travis park outside the building where an assignation is taking place, taunting the taxi driver with images of what he is going to do to his lady’s lady parts. Picture that guy as one of the sleazier Wall Streeters who bent and broke the rules of basic computation and common sense and killed the careers of many unsuspecting middle- and working-class fellow citizens, one of the felons who will never see a day in jail but whose almost sociopathic contempt for consequences brought an entire economy to its knees.
Now imagine again that this guy virtually lives, not in a taxi, but in a stretch limo, equipped with the latest in multi-dimensional tech. It is here that he cheats on his wife, enjoys daily physical examinations from doctors (including cardiograms), and dialogues endlessly in an attempt to bring order out of chaos. It is here that he consumes without thought, offering to buy Rothko’s chapel even though it’s not for sale.
After assaults by anarchists and encounters with chatty minions determined to explain reality and protect him from those who want him really dead, our entrepreneur comes face to face with the 2012 version of Travis Bickle, in this case a middle-aged frump, a veteran of avoiding foreign wars who never seems to leave his ratty apartment but whose destiny is to blow the head off the walking symbol of all that is evil in a capitalism defined by creative destruction.
Who will save whom? And from what?
Unfortunately, Cosmopolis ain’t that film. It has some of the dressing of that film, but none of the force of a ruthless nature that could have bitch-slapped the culture the way Taxi Driver did. While Robert Pattinson somewhat resembles a pasty-faced young-man DeNiro, and even takes to affecting a kind of Lower East Side accent and shoulders-first stride as the film progresses to the streets, his character, like all the dialogue in this interminable paeon to frustrated revolution, is as compelling as a dead rat.
As Pattinson & Co. drone on and on about how “we die each day” and “violence needs a purpose” and the damn yuan and how the Wall Streeter’s prostate is “asymmetrical” (I kid you not—in fact, in one of the weirder moments, Pattinson is given a prostate exam in his limo while he seduces a coworker who seems to be falling in love with her water bottle).
“You absolutely reek of sexual discharge,” Pattinson’s wife tells him, a wife, it should be noted, too busy working to consummate her own marriage (heavy message).
Pattinson’s ego starts to shed layers as this one long day (an American treasury functionary is literally murdered live on North Korean television, spinning the economy’s pinwheel one more time) turns into one dark night. We see him explode in meaningless and startling acts of murderous violence. (His true nature, don’t you see.) Finally, the man obsessed with his own death proves increasingly masochistic. All that destructive energy has to go somewhere, especially if he can’t tear apart other people’s businesses! O the ironies!
That’s about the only real, or worthy, point of the film: capitalism may be voracious, chewing up and spitting up everyone and everything that gets in the way of bigger, faster, better, but its enemies are rarely motivated by love of the poor and oppressed as much as a risible self-contempt.
At least that’s what I took away from Cosmopolis. Maybe I only read it into the film. I had to do something to keep myself occupied for two hours…