Cosmopolis is all that’s wrong with cerebral filmmaking.
The magazine Little White Lies takes an excellent approach to reviewing films. It scores them on three separate counts: the reviewer’s anticipation for that film, how entertaining the film was while it was being watched, and the lasting impact of that film. It’s a good system, because it allows a film’s intelligence to be evaluated separately from how engaging it is.
Had I reviewed Cosmopolis for LWL, I would have given it a 3/4 for impact. For actual fun, I would have slapped it with a 0-1. I feel this nicely encapsulates the problem of Cosmopolis. In trying to be intelligent, it sacrifices entertainment.
Cosmopolis is a pretty effective (and, given the fact that the source material was written in 2003, goddamn prescient) criticism of modern capitalism. Its central character, Eric Packer (R-Patz), is one of those modern billionaires whose wealth is not earned by the production of things, but in playing the rises and falls of a global market. The film charts his headlong downfall, in a New York rocked by insane protests, where 99%-ish types throw rats at people (everyone apparently having read the same poem by Zbigniew Herbert, wherein rats become a unit of currency). This is a world where the insubstantial nature of wealth has divorced the rich from reality, and the real majority is mightily annoyed at the dominance these aliens have.
In short, this dark fictional world is an effective, angry critique. Or it would be, if the film was not completely rubbish.
As a whole, I have hated movies more than I hated Cosmopolis. It is not so offensively crass or dumb as Transformers or Battle: LA. It’s not as up-its-own-arse as Himizu or Mitsuko Delivers. But still, those movies I came to hate over their duration.
I loathed Cosmopolis within five minutes.
This is partly down to the dialogue, which is just awful: winding, overcomplicated and pretentiously rhetorical. It’s the kind of speech that belongs in the mouth of a jowly man on a soapbox, projected out with gouts of spittle and much facial wobbling. The kind of dialogue that has meaning, but is so aware of that meaning it sounds affected and artificial.
But pretentious gibberish does not always hit the ears like the aural equivalent of a cheese grater. Case in point: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It and Cosmopolis actually prove to be fairly similar films. They are both thematic critiques. Fear and Loathing is an excellent criticism of post-60s America, capturing the glittering spiritual void that the USA became in the wake of the decade’s failed revolution. Its lead character, Raoul Duke, is a raving philosophical nutjob, and the dialogue has many of the features that annoyed me about Cosmopolis. But what director Terry Gilliam manages to do is parcel that dialogue in a way that makes its self-importance palatable.
Part of the parcel is Johnny Depp, whose paranoid, terrified delivery makes Raoul Duke’s ravings sound naturalistic. By contrast the emotionless delivery of Pattinson and Sarah Gadon (who plays Packer’s wife Elise Shifrin), made the language sound artificial and affected. They didn’t sound like people. They sounded like actors reading from a script they did not understand. Only Paul Giamatti managed to deliver his lines with the naturalism they so desperately needed, his speech animated by an entire proletariat’s worth of bitterness.
So, Cronenberg clearly got casting all wrong (from an artistic standpoint at least: R-Patz at least encourages ticket sales). But that’s not his only misstep. Thematic films inspire a detached audience viewpoint. When a piece of entertainment is more intent on delivering an intellectual message rather than cathartic thrills, total engagement is never a real possibility. But when you hold an audience apart in some ways, it is common sense draw them in in others. In Fear and Loathing, what draws you in to the movie is not the rambling dialogue, but Gilliam’s fantastic visuals. Whether it’s the joy of seeing Depp’s crazed, drugged-up performance, the sheer weirdness of Duke’s fantasies (giant boozing reptiles: hell yes), or simply Gilliam’s accomplished camerawork, the visuals of Fear and Loathing are interesting enough to counterbalance the alienating dialogue.
Cronenberg’s visuals for Cosmopolis on the other hand are dull, dull, dull. There is nothing really very interesting happening on screen. The camera is sedate rather than energetic, holding shots and moving only in slow sweeps. It all smacks of purposeful detachment, of a director choosing to address the intelligent critique at the heart of Cosmopolis in a studious, analytical matter, rather than trusting that the critique will shine through a more dramatic surface. What Cronenberg has made here is not a film. It’s an essay.
Of course, it’s only in my personal judgement that Cosmopolis is a failure. I know there are dissenting opinions on this score: check out these reviews by Ross Miller and Robbie Collins as example. Just because Cronenberg made an essay with light doesn’t mean it isn’t a good essay. You could even say that the film achieves its purpose: it wants to be detached and analytical and that’s what it is.
My reply to this is simple. That may be the film’s purpose. But the idea you have to minimise engagement in order to better analyse an underlying theme is ridiculous: the definition of great fiction is that it does both. True, the critical community often attributes highest value to thematic fiction over purely dramatic fiction. We like films that make us think. But this inherent value judgement is misleading. It implies that the purely cerebral film is the ideal, when nothing could be further from the truth. We like intelligence. But we also like drama, the ability to lose ourselves in a story. Cosmopolis does all it can to prevent this from happening. It believes that being intelligent is more important than being fun.
No-one in their right mind believes that.
 Yes, I appreciate the irony OK? Rest assured, if Cosmopolis had any beneficial consequences, it’s that I now double check everything I write to make sure I haven’t fallen into the same trap