Twilight of the Teen Idol

In Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson is aiming for mainstream leading man territory

Film
Gothic features: Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis"

Have you heard of Robert Pattinson? Certainly your daughters have. He is the highest paid young British actor in the world right now, with his likeness on show in Madame Tussauds and his gothic features staring out, pale and not very interesting, from a thousand celebrity magazines. The fame and fortune is due solely to a series of hugely successful and oddly old-fashioned teen films, known as the Twilight saga, in which he plays a reluctant vampire inconveniently in love with a choice bit of prey.  

The moist adoration of thousands along with trillions in the bank would probably be enough for most 26-year-olds; but Pattinson obviously wants to make the breakthrough into mainstream leading man territory, and has been cropping up in more mature fare, such as the deadly dull period adaptation Bel Ami and the retro circus romance Water for Elephants. Fair enough, everybody needs a bit of direction in life and besides, as Leonardo DiCaprio could surely attest, the clear-skinned freshness of male youth idols, the very femininity at the heart of their appeal, eventually gives way to something more masculine as the years pass. Indeed it’s this, rather than ageing itself, which paradoxically turns the young ladies off. The more manly the man, the less they tend to like it. Justin Bieber — another teen heartthrob your daughters will have heard of — is surely banking on it.

With Cosmopolis, Pattinson has taken another step forward into adult-land, and then one step slightly sideways into the vaguely arty. An adaptation of American author Don DeLillo’s unreadable short novel about a single day in the life of Eric Packer, a New York financial whizz kid, it is set mostly in the stretch limo which doubles up as his office, and which throughout the course of the film glides from one side of Manhattan to the other with the sole purpose of delivering him to the barber. Insulated from the slightest sound, accompanied by a security guard and the occasional acolyte or sex partner, Packer looks on passively as his progress is interrupted by, variously, an anti-capitalist demo, a presidential visit and the elaborate funeral of a rap star. Somebody, too, might be out to get him, but that doesn’t seem to worry him much. He is like a stone-cold modern-day Jay Gatsby with a dash of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman: a human blank.

Directed by David Cronenberg, who is best known for his visceral, often surreally horrific imagery, Cosmopolis certainly looks full-blooded and vivid, which in an era that rather overdoes the bleached-out colours comes as a refreshing change. It’s occasionally stylish in a white shirt, black suit and shades kind of way. But as Oscar Levant once said about Hollywood, strip away the tinsel and what’s underneath? The real tinsel. In Cosmopolis, there really is no there there.

The film doesn’t so much leave questions hanging in the air as whole conversations. All the characters speak in heavily stylised, opaque non-sequiturs, which means that nobody really makes much progress (God knows how they’d have got on if they’d decided to stop off for a group order of sandwiches). The script — and indeed the novel, which this adaptation cleaves closely to — is made up of streams and streams of verbal bunting, random and flapping around in the wind. This straining for gravitas gets very tedious after a while. But if your answer to the question, “What does it actually mean?” is, “Hey, what is meaning anyway?” then this is the film for you. It also means that you are, at most, probably in your first term at college and sitting cross-legged on the floor with a group of really, really interesting new friends.   

With his skin-deep persona, Pattinson might seem a good choice as Packer. Certainly, when in close-up, his expressionless features become compelling, and the occasional twitch, nuance or glance can give the impression that there’s some subtle “inner” acting going on here. But I suspect that it is just a matter of happy chance. When forced to move around in scenes set outside the limo, he appears awkward and self-conscious. You find, after a while, that you simply can’t believe that this is a man who controls the financial fate of millions, let alone his own. In fact, from banker to barber, security guard to sexpot, barely a line spoken has the remotest ring of truth about it.          

It’s a summer of portentous titles: before Cosmopolis there came Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s “prequel” to the Alien films, and the big cinema event of the summer. Set some decades before that squirty little alien burst out of John Hurt’s chest, it follows an expedition which sets out to find the origin of life. Of course, this is something which they can never truly discover without the whole narrative being upended, and so we are left with lots of loose ends and, despite the sometimes glacial pace, an oddly muddled plot. But it’s still worth seeing — just for some quite exquisite sequences. 

Still in my mind is the scene in which the obligatory humanoid robot David, played superbly by Michael Fassbender, manages to conjure up and then immerse himself in a silvery, three-dimensional representation of the universe, and for one brief moment holds planet earth in his hands. I can’t quite remember how or why he got to that point, or what its significance was, as the story has largely disappeared into the ether. But that was a moment of pure beauty.