Cosmopolis (15) ** Rock of Ages (12A) *

A bad hair day for Cronenberg and Cruise

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The Independent Culture

In David Cronenberg's distracted new movie a young man wants a haircut, and makes a trip across town to get one. The last time I recall a fictional character taking a whole day to visit his barber was Frank Churchill galloping all the way to London in Emma. It was considered rather frivolous by Austen's people.

Cosmopolis, however, is based on a novel (2003) by Don DeLillo, the journey is not by horse but by stretch limo, and the town is midtown Manhattan, in gridlock, coinciding with a president's visit and a funeral parade for a Sufi rapper. The man, a 28-year-old billionaire named Eric Packer, is also the target of a death threat. He must want that haircut quite badly.

Packer, played by the Twilight star Robert Pattinson, is a Master of the Universe – "foully and berserkly rich", as someone describes him – though he shows almost no interest in his wealth, or anything else. Dressed in black suit and tie, seated throne-like at the back of his de luxe limo, he looks like a man on the way to his own funeral. Perhaps he is. The film plays out a sequence of one-on-one vignettes as Packer makes stops to pick up this or that passenger: a financial analyst (Samantha Morton) who advises him to bail out of the yen, his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) with whom he has sex, his doctor who gives him a prostate examination (while he's talking to another adviser), a bodyguard (and another tryst), and a late encounter with an Occupy-style rioter (Mathieu Amalric) who catches him full in the face with a cream pie.

He also fits in a lunch with a cool new wife (Sarah Gadon) he barely seems to know. But her sensitive nose tells her that her husband's stopovers en route have not been innocent.

The affectless nature of these duologues is heightened by the womb-like silence within the limousine. Packer has had the interior "Prousted" – cork-lined – to blot out any sound from the streets, which the occasional glimpse of daylight reveals to be a place in near-meltdown. So our attention is necessarily focused upon the characters' interaction, which, in Pattinson's case, struggles to involve us.

Saturnine and chiselled, he has no great expressive mobility in his features, only once showing a twitch of surprise when Binoche tells him about an "important" Rothko that has come on the market. Instead, he decides to buy the whole Rothko chapel and its contents – why settle for a mere painting?

A lot seems to be happening around Packer on this cross-town doom ride, yet very little of it registers as drama. As John Updike wrote in his review of DeLillo's novel, "How much should we care about the threatened assassination of a hero as unsympathetic and bizarre as Eric Packer?"

The problem becomes acute in the story's final encounter, when he meets a hostile ex-employee, played by Paul Giamatti, and learns that they share the same medical anomaly: a "lopsided" prostate. (Was that the detail which first hooked Cronenberg, connoisseur of the aberrant?) Their conversation takes on the tetchily enigmatic style, and length, of a Pinter play. That's another curious and disagreeable aspect of Cosmopolis, which runs for 109 minutes yet seems to last twice as long.

It's the second literary adaptation Cronenberg has directed after A Dangerous Method, which also went heavy on the talkiness. The mystery of it is why he should want to make such a cold and bloodless film when most of his best work – Dead Ringers, A History of Violence, The Dead Zone – depends so markedly on engagement with the human and the vulnerable. "Why can I not work up any curiosity on the subject?" muses Packer on his death threat. If he doesn't know, I can't tell you.

There was a glimmer of a sneaking feeling that Rock of Ages might just be an irresistible guilty pleasure. Coming off the back of a jukebox musical that has been knocking them dead here and on Broadway, it aims to do for poodle rock what Mamma Mia! did for the Abba catalogue. Its throwback setting of 1987 is also in its favour, given our helpless fetishism of big hair, power ballads and mobile phones the size of toasters. Alas, its feel-good potency as a stage entertainment has been utterly squashed in its transfer to film, where it lumbers and flails and outstays its welcome by at least half an hour.

The blame? Partly it's the bland leads, wannabe singers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, warbling their hearts out to no purpose at all. Partly it's Tom Cruise for his laboured turn as narcissistic rock god Stacee Jaxx, necking bourbon from the bottle and spacing his lines s-o-o-o broadly you could drive his personal trailer through each of them. And partly it's the director Adam Shankman, who tries to whip up audience goodwill but dissipates the fun with too much cutting and too little drive. His choreography on the big numbers is way off the pace.

Alec Baldwin brings a touch of comic guile to the rock-club impresario who takes a flyer on the pair of songbirds, while Russell Brand as his sidekick doodles amusingly with a Brummie accent. Amid so much misfiring bluster, their duet on REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" at least raises a laugh.

It's all so terribly tame. Lemmy of Motörhead once said, "Rock'n'roll is about not being able to stand, but still being able to play". He would loathe Rock of Ages, and with good reason.

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