Paul Giamatti and Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis
SPOILER ALERT: This article examines David Cronenberg's new film, Cosmopolis, in great detail. Many of the movie's plot points are discussed. If you haven't seen it and want to experience all of the surprises in the theater firsthand, you should probably wait to read this.
Why has one of the best movies of the year gotten so many bad and iffy reviews, registering from lukewarm to hostile? It's well written, cast, directed, performed, sequenced, and shot, offering a lot to think about, if you're so inclined—the world, your place in it, etc.—and funny in its own weird and disturbing way, just like life. It achieves depth from its flatness, which is something very few filmmakers can manage. Then why such a lame response? When you consider that the director of Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg, is not without his fans and defenders, especially among reviewers, the question is even more perplexing. Or maybe not. The quote that kicks off this column is taken from the movie, and the book which it’s more or less faithfully based on, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo. It's one of the most memorable lines in Cosmopolis, either written or spoken, whether it reverberates from the page or the screen to your mind, and it's a possible clue to answering the question of why the movie hasn't been more favorably received.
There are reviewers who tend to think that books are better than the movies made from them, and often they're right, but not this time. In this case, the movie and the book are mutually entwined. Cosmopolis is the third movie that Cronenberg has directly spun from a book. His previous literary adaptations—perhaps re-imaginings is a better term—are Naked Lunch, written by William S. Burroughs, and Crash, by J.G. Ballard. Whatever you think of these movies, and I happen to admire them, it's to Cronenberg's credit that he brought to the screen works that were considered "unfilmable." For a reviewer to refer to a book as "unfilmable," meaning that its words and images may be difficult to translate to the screen, that its story is convoluted or beyond belief, is absurd. No book is unfilmable. Not even the Bible, apparently. Cecil B. DeMille managed to tell the story of the Ten Commandments in under four hours back in 1956. Up against this sort of fantastical yarn, the so-called science fiction of our time seems like documentary, closer to what authors such as J.G. Ballard helped us to recognize as science fact. What remains in the realm of fantasy, and what comes true? What really resonates with our time? We've seen any number of challenging books writ large on the screen. Steven Spielberg's film based on Ballard's Empire of the Sun (1987) comes readily to mind, as does Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), whose plot was taken from Philip K. Dick's book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and whose title was grafted from a 1979 novella by Burroughs, Blade Runner (a movie). And now we have Cosmopolis, and that unforgettable line.
The Hollywood machine is perfectly comfortable with Michael Douglas proclaiming that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good," as he did in Oliver Stone’s, Wall Street (1987), and, predictably, reviewers and cultural critics swarmed all over it. But to say that the logical extension of business is murder, well, that's bad for business no matter how you make or steal your money. It places an image in the moviegoer’s mind that is not easily forgotten: bloody hands and any number of bodies. Financial fallout is rarely about an individual, and all about collateral damage. Human beings are the collateral against which the bigger bets are made, and they're usually placed by those who play with other people's money. In this world there's a cold-bloodedness that might send a chill up your spine if it wasn't so perfectly normal. And it shifts the banality of a familiar phrase—business as usual—into another that's harder to swallow: murder as usual. But Wall Street was entertainment (and now, for some, perhaps even nostalgia), not unsuccessful at the box office, and Douglas's performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Looking back, one can't help but wonder if the movie wasn't equal parts indictment and celebration, reprehensible and seductive.
Twenty-five years before Occupy Wall Street, the movie took aim at and demonized the 80s and all it represented, most succinctly embedded in that single line. And yet it's something else that Douglas's character, Gordon Gekko, says that speaks to our time, and while not as iconic it's far more resonant, and incredibly prescient. "The richest one percent of this country," he tells us, "owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars." That's five trillion late 80s dollars, mind you. The demonizing of that decade is an old, well-worn story by now, usually related by those for whom it has no lived texture, a time they may not have passed through, the wafting of so much second-hand smoke. But there are other stories, older and more telling. What's so different, we might ask, between the 1980s and the 1880s? In 1834, the French novelist Honoré de Balzac famously declared, "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime." Since human behavior doesn't change drastically from one century to the next, it must to some degree—whether greater or lesser doesn't really matter—remain true.
A hundred and fifty-some years before Wall Street, and even more distantly to Occupy Wall Street, Balzac was already there. Art and literature arrive at places before we do, and can serve as a kind of early warning system. (It may sound hokey, but that doesn't make it any less true.) This is just one of the reasons why art and literature aren't very well supported in this culture, and, conversely, why they sometimes are—that is, if you think of institutional and governmental support as a means of controlling, under the guise of benevolence, any information which might undermine its authority, or nose around too closely. In art, as with science, more questions are inevitably asked than answered. This is the very nature of inquiry, which can be a potentially dangerous activity. People, even those—perhaps especially those—who may be in disagreement, are provoked to think for and possibly doubt themselves, to extend their reflection forward as well as back in time. History and memory, then, are subjects roused within the imaginative fiction of our age, a period in which the past is either theme-parked or erased—in the end, achieving the same desired result, an ever-present now. Imaginative fiction is also the pursuit of philosophy and science, a kind of reportage before the fact. Some movies and books engage in this sort of inquiry, and Cosmopolis is one of them. And despite the storyline, keep in mind that it might not actually be about money.