Drive, He Said
by Steve Dollar
One afternoon in the late '00s, when I was sitting in Tom & Jerry's bar on Elizabeth Street waiting to talk to a director about his apocalyptic rat-zombie movie, the bartender brought up the subject of Robert Pattinson
. The Twilight
star had been in New York City, just trying to take it easy, and wandered in for a few beers one day. Tom & Jerry's isn't exactly on the Twihard radar, after all. It's a place where directors of apocalyptic rat-zombie movies hang out. Therefore, a safe haven for the actor, who could hardly go anywhere without being recognized. "He's a good guy," the bartender said, then lamented that his customer was only good for a couple of pints. It wasn't long before the phone rang. Someone had tweeted a Pattinson sighting at Tom & Jerry's. "I told him he better make a run for it."
That story was amusing to me at the time, but it acquires an unexpected resonance in Cosmopolis
. Pundits debated David Cronenberg
's casting of the 26-year-old teen heartthrob in his new film. It's the first to be scripted by the director himself since 1999's Existenz
, and given the "unfilmable" pedigree of the literary source material (Don DeLillo
's slim 2003 novel), aligned with two of his more outre adaptatons: Naked Lunch
(1991) and Crash
(1996). Yet, it makes perfect sense. As billionaire investment genius Eric Packer, Pattinson is asked to play a pretty-boy master of the universe who spends most of the movie conducting business from the hermetic repose of his stretch limousine. Unsafe at any speed, Packer is attended by a sanguine bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand
, looking like the bastard offspring of Mr. Smith from The Matrix
and Christopher Walken
), as a death threat looms—and not necessarily for the President of the United States, whose arrival in Manhattan has slowed traffic to a trawl. What better time to get a haircut?
Cronenberg makes the most of Pattinson's ability to appear bloodless and somehow post-human: He's a paranoid android, entertaining the merely mortal in the luxury of his limo as it nudges through the city streets (a Toronto soundstage and a green screen standing in for Gotham). It's a parody of that scene in every rockumentary, beginning with Don't Look Back
and Richard Lester
's Beatles comedies
: the icon in a back seat, buffeted from the roaring, adoring crowd as the wheels crunch along. The journey is populated by various minions: boy hackers, a freon-veined wife, a libidinous French art dealer (Juliette Binoche
) who chastises Packer for his insistence on buying Rothko Chapel, after a romp in reverse cowgirl. Mathieu Almaric
has a riotous cameo as a whipped cream pie terrorist, although the most prolonged assault on this Wall Street scion's dignity is a six-minute rectal exam. Not everything is perfect, it seems: "I have an asymmetrical prostate," a fretful Packer declares, to almost everyone who will listen.
The post-9/11 vibe of the novel has been transposed to the Occupy Wall Street era, with the vague, skittery surface noise of something more cyberpunkish. Much as Existenz, the film has the strangely palpable air of something hyper-real—like a 3D video game—in which the sudden flash to each new encounter triggers a new possibility for action. The linear motion is occasionally broken so that Packer can visit a low-rent diner (no Tom & Jerry's on this route, alas) or, the movie's high point, engage in an existential conversation in a remote barbershop. The structure lends itself to a lot of deadpan riffs, made by Packer's guests at the expense of his dry, detached sensibility. The jokes break the mood of suspended animation, but they also underscore the mannered, theatrical dialogue. At a Walter Reade theater screening on Friday night, Cronenberg expressed admiration for DeLillo's language, likening it in its distinction to that of David Mamet
or Harold Pinter
. The director also claimed that the screenplay was written in six days, more or less transcribing lines from the book to the screen. The problem is that the effect, as staged for the most part in a tightly enclosed space, becomes highly static, even academic. It's a movie about ideas, but not about feelings, and while its conceptual abstractions make for some lively mind games they fail to deeply engage as cinema. By the time Paul Giamatti
shows up as an aggrieved former employee/star-fucker/would-be assassin and the movie turns into a 22-minute pas de deux
therapy session out of Fight Club
, it's too late: the movie is just spinning its wheels.
Posted by ahillis at August 18, 2012 11:29 AM