Cosmopolis’ lesson about the subversive power of superstardom 

Cosmopolis’ lesson about the subversive power of superstardom 

This past June, director David Cronenberg and the cast of his latest film, Cosmopolis, gathered in Toronto for a two-day press junket built around the film’s Canadian première. It was a lot of excitement for the local press corps, mostly because Cronenberg’s latest rounds out a cast of Canadian talent (Jay Baruchel, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand) and indie-certified internationals (Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche) with a legitimate movie star: Robert Pattinson.

Apparently, during the shoot of the film—which makes a minimal effort to dress up Toronto as downtown Manhattan—Cronenberg’s crew were regularly visited by adolescent Twi-hards crowding around the cordoned-off outdoor sets just to get a look at Pattinson. These kids were already invested in the source material (Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name), to the point of fashioning their own Cosmopolis T-shirts. (Cronenberg also told a similar story about rabid fans angling to get a look at Jeremy Irons on the set of Dead Ringers in the ’80s, which is even funnier.) 

As the director put it, these are young women who read Harry Potter—I got the sense he was trying not to say “Twilight”—who were now invested in a movie about the ethics of cyber-capitalism. Some of these adventurous R-Patz admirers have cobbled together web pages that are even sleeker and more professional-looking than the film’s own promotional hub. Is it normal for fan-sites to track stuff like Scandinavian distribution rights? No. Probably not. It’s weird.

Given that a Cosmopolis is a collaboration between one of the English language’s most revered novelists and one of its most interesting filmmakers, there’s been considerable interest in it since it was announced in 2009. The casting of marquee idol Robert Pattinson (who replaced an overbooked Colin Farrell), as investment-banking wunderkind Eric Packer, added an intriguing wrinkle. 

In spite of other, seemingly earnest attempts at indie viability (Little Ashes, Water For Elephants, and a few other non-undead movies) Pattinson may always be seen as the pallid poster boy of the teeny-bopper-baiting Twilight films. It seemed like he and the apparatus of agents and publicists that stoke the fires of the Pattinson machine were using Cronenberg’s film as another occasion to float the notion of Pattinson as something other than a Tiger Beat pinup and perennial Teen Choice Award nominee. Yet listening to Cronenberg talk about the Cosmopolis production process at this press scrum, a different, contrary idea emerged. Maybe it was Cronenberg who was using Pattinson.

Pattinson is really good in Cosmopolis. It’s a cold, flinty movie that seems to draw from Bertolt Brecht’s alienating “epic theater,” ramping up the self-consciously artificial quality of the production to distance viewers from its cast of venture capitalists, proto-Occupy radicals, and would-be assassins. Pattinson ditches the glitter and blood-red contact lenses, but otherwise, plays things even chillier as a cold-blooded billionaire capitalist calmly watching the stock market crumble around him as he lurches across New York City in a decked-out limousine. As a vessel for DeLillo’s dialogue and Cronenberg’s (perhaps intentionally) stuffy direction, he’s fantastic.

Considering the film’s sermonizing on the pitfalls of capitalist excess, it seems like Pattinson is being employed at another, subversive level. It’s hard to shake the image of preteen girls humming around the periphery of the film’s set armed with dog-eared copies of Don DeLillo’s novel. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that Cronenberg is leveraging his matinee idol’s stardom in an attempt to sell a movie about the self-destructive greed of the 1 percent. Is Cronenberg trying to bilk the Twilight generation out of their $12 to teach them a lesson about late capitalism? Is he turning Pattinson’s superstardom against itself?

It’s hard to think of a real precedent for this. A certain tension emerges when the products of a massive cultural apparatus like Hollywood offer implicit critiques of their own operation. Think of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer: a $120 million studio-financed movie advocating for mom-and-pop values. Or Fight Club: a film built around a domestic terrorist attack against credit-card companies that peddled a new form of hyperactive adolescent machismo. Vladimir Lenin famously wrote an opinion on capitalism that’s been popularly rendered as, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” That pared-down version of his statement is an apt observation about the sheer voraciousness of the profit motive. Films like these, which disseminate ideas and attitudes that seem to contradict the bottom-line-driven systems that create them, speak to what Lenin was talking about. It’s like a commercial for a restaurant that tells you not to eat there.

Cosmopolis isn’t a studio-system product. It was financed by Portuguese producer Paulo Branco and distributed by indie broker eOne. Yet Pattinson’s appearance provides some unusual ideological voltage. It’s a result of his Hollywood megastar status and his gossip-rag cachet, as evinced by his recent, much-publicized, methodically tracked breakup with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart. It’s a result of his placement in Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, Forbes’ Celebrity 100 index, and sundry “Sexiest Man Alive” polls. And so similar frictions flare up in Cosmopolis. The difference is that, unlike in the voguishly nihilistic, fashionably anti-capitalist Fight Club (essentially a college dorm poster and snarky snowflake-quote delivery device), Cosmopolis is entirely unhip. 

This is a film built around long one-on-one conversations between Pattinson and the rest of the film’s cast. They talk about Chinese currency. They talk about the potency of violence and the tides of history. They talk about the stuff people talk about in a Don DeLillo story (or a David Cronenberg movie). Sometimes, it seems like they talk just for the sake of talking. It’s dense, and in its way, difficult. Unlike with Fight Club, it’s hard to imagine the movie selling loads of special-edition DVDs, spin-off PlayStation games, or dorm-room upholstery. But this just seems to further validate Cronenberg’s bait-and-switch casting of Pattinson. This is, after all, a director who made his name smuggling allegories about mass-media consumption and the ravages of terminal disease into otherwise tasteless, exploitative genre pictures. Cronenberg is a lot of things, but chief amongst these, he’s clever.

This isn’t to suggest that David Cronenberg is full-on exploiting Pattinson, necessarily. In Cosmopolis, Pattinson makes good on this serious thespian bid, capably anchoring the difficult material and selling his wordy monologues. (Whether individual viewers think the film is any good will probably depend on how much leeway they’re willing to afford Cronenberg, and whether they’re willing to attribute Cosmopolis’s obviously niggling qualities—stilted dialogue, canned direction—to its larger idea of contemporary society as some ersatz, postmodern meta-space.) Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Cronenberg and his star use each other, in turn. Cronenberg gets to invest his film with the wattage of a real-deal Hollywood superstar, while Pattinson pads out his CV with a credit in a real-deal filmmaker’s latest film. 

Still, somewhere in the middle of this agreeable professional trade-off, a whole incidental target demographic of #TeamEdward true believers in their homespun fan shirts may be taking away lessons about large-scale market economics, the historical allure of celebrity assassination, and just what how much a painting by abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko is really worth. At the very least, they stand to be totally validated in their hope that their grey-eyed idol has within him the stuff of a real actor.