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Cronenberg takes us into Wall Street's darkness with 'Cosmopolis'

Charles Ealy
David Cronenberg directed 'Cosmopolis', the screen adaptation of the Wall Street novel by Don DeLillo starring Robert Pattinson.

"My prostate is asymmetrical," Robert Pattinson repeats throughout the new movie "Cosmopolis."

It's an odd line, but one that goes to the heart of Pattinson's character, billionaire Eric Packer, who's riding through Manhattan in a soundproof limousine for most of "Cosmopolis."

The limo represents the height of symmetricality, with numerous computers tracking stock trades around the world and various assistants popping in and out of his ultra-private domain to provide aesthetic advice, sexual adventures, financial updates — and even a prostate exam.

Although Packer is losing millions of dollars in wrongheaded bets involving whether the Chinese yuan will rise or fall throughout "Cosmopolis," he continues to discuss his asymmetrical prostate.

Such absurdity — or perhaps, profundity — is part of the reason that David Cronenberg, one of the most cerebral directors of our time, decided to tackle the screen adaptation of the quirky Wall Street novel by acclaimed writer Don DeLillo.

"Eric Packer's limousine is an attempt to have perfect form and perfect shape," the Canadian director says in a recent telephone interview. "But you can't anticipate things, and you can't prevent chaos."

For Cronenberg, that's one of the central messages of "Cosmopolis."

"Market trading has nothing to do with reality," he says. "It doesn't make something. If you live totally in that world, you lose sight of our humanity, our physicality and what it's like to be an animal in the world."

And then Cronenberg begins to talk like you'd expect the director of "Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch" and "The Fly" to talk: "If you've ever looked at photos of the human body, it's not neat. The organic is unpredictable and asymmetrical, and it's constantly shifting and changing. But if you're an artist, that's where you live."

It is not, of course, where Pattinsion's Packer wants to live. Yet it's where he's headed as he cruises through Manhattan on his way to get a haircut. During a short stop at a diner, protesters interrupt his lunch by throwing rats on the counters. And later, in the limo, while Packer receives philosophical advice from a character played by Samantha Morton, people dressed as rats start to riot in the streets. One man is even setting himself on fire to protest capitalism.

"That's not original," Morton's character says of the self-immolator as they drive by the fiery scene.

It's a horrifying, unfeeling observation, so shocking that a viewer won't know whether to laugh nervously or wince. But in the way Cronenberg frames the moment, it's also clear that the director wants us to see the scene for what it is: horrifyingly amusing.

The philosophical adviser and Packer are headed for a fall, a comeuppance of drastic proportions. Yet they calmly carry on a conversation about aesthetic choices while rioters try to overturn their limo.

And this is where Cronenberg chooses to start showing the cracks in Packer's façade. The billionaire can't help but note that setting oneself on fire has to be painful, even if it isn't original. Morton's character, however, is unmoved

For her, "it's all aesthetics and theory," Cronenberg says. "And at that point, it's left to Eric to discuss the pain. He has surrounded himself with people to support the life that he has constructed. .... And ultimately, he has gathered these people around him to nourish him, but they're not really nourishing him."

That lack of nourishment — or the unwillingness to feel — is why Packer defies advice from his security detail and proceeds through Manhattan to a barbershop where he had his first haircut as a child.

Some critics interpret Packer's day in the limo as a long descent, a trip toward self-destruction. Others see it as a movement toward freedom, with Packer finally realizing that great wealth can bring enslavement.

But Cronenberg doesn't buy into just one interpretation. He revels in ambiguity.

"I read it both ways," he says. "I don't think you have to choose."

Still, he says he sees the story as Packer's "regressing toward his childhood, the barbershop." And he notes that Pattinson's performance "becomes less glacial, more childlike as he nears the shop."

And once in the shop, Packer "totally regresses, trying to reconnect with his life," Cronenberg says. "But he realizes he can't reconnect, and at that point, he considers suicide."

Cronenberg says he understands that the austerity and asceticism of "Cosmopolis" will not cause crowds to flock to the theater as if it's the latest summer blockbuster.

"It has done well enough as an art film that is very demanding," he says, "and it didn't cost $220 million."

He adds that "a lot of people really get it and understand it. I have a feeling that over time it will settle in as an interesting and unique movie."

And what about those "Twilight" fans who want to fawn over Pattinson but will find a "Cosmopolis" character who's distant and off-putting?

"I think people develop a gradual, weird emotional connection" to Pattinson's character, Cronenberg says. "And I accept a gradual, weird emotional connection as a good thing."

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931