I never imagined describing a film as a cross between “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” but then I never quite predicted a movie like “Cosmopolis,” a film in which David Cronenberg very faithfully adapts the novel by Don DeLillo — quite the challenge, given that the story takes place almost entirely inside the protagonist’s staggeringly luxurious limousine.
The result is a capital-A arthouse film with a pulse so slow you often think they’re going to lose the patient. Even fans of Cronenberg’s chilly understatement and the dehumanized performance style he favors among his actors may find themselves occasionally vexed by the film’s claustrophobia and reserve, but “Cosmopolis” builds up a cumulative fascination that results in a film that’s unforgettable and audacious in its inertia.
Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a rich young Master of the Universe who just wants a haircut. But the road to the barbershop is a tricky one; the president’s in town, for one thing, so Manhattan traffic is tied into knots. In the meantime, he receives a series of visitors in his limo, including a frisky art dealer (Juliette Binoche), a concerned underling (Jay Baruchel) and a visionary advisor (Samantha Morton, whose repeated line, “I know nothing of this,” is practically a mantra for the movie).
Meanwhile, the streets are full of rioting anarchists, Packer attempts to corner the baht market in Thailand, and Packer’s wife (Sarah Gadon), whom he joins for a series of meals, refuses to have sex with him.
Packer also confronts various nemeses (played by Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti), but “Cosmopolis” is not designed to satisfy anyone asking the question, “So, what happens?” Ninety-eight percent of the film is made up of conversations in which no one raises his or her voice, so be ready for a talky, trippy experience.
The crazy thing is, it works. I’m still not sure if Pattinson is a genius at underplaying or if Cronenberg is exploiting his innate blandness the way Kubrick did with Keir Dullea in “2001,” but either way, the “Twilight” star gets the tone (a low, humming tone at that) just right.
This is not a movie to watch on cable while you’re paying taxes; it requires intense concentration because Cronenberg offers little in the way of exposition while slipping little clues about character and consequences throughout the enigmatic exchanges of dialogue.
It may take a year or two before I can decide whether or not “Cosmopolis” is a work of genius, but it’s too smart and layered and provocative to dismiss as merely pretentious or in love with the sound of its own voice. It’s the kind of film that starts arguments, so see it if for no other reason than to know on which side you’ll be standing.