David Cronenberg adapting Don DeLillo — how much icy intelligence can one movie take? The surprise of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is how well a novel that once made me want to hurl my copy of the paperback at the wall works as a film. Circa 2003, 200-plus pages of cold, oracular pronouncements drove me to swear off my onetime literary idol for a while. But the same material, astutely streamlined, makes for an amusing and unsettling provocation in Cronenberg’s hands. Much like Godard’s Weekend (1967), this is a movie that continually jabs at the viewer, goading him for a reaction.
The other surprise of Cosmopolis is how well cast Robert Pattinson is as the lead, 28-year-old Eric Packer, a titan of finance who is about to experience a steep, steep drop in his fortunes. The story depicts the proverbial long day’s journey into night as Eric sets out to cross Manhattan one morning in his stretch limo, to get a haircut at the old neighborhood barbershop his father used to patronize.
Along the way numerous obstacles arise. The U.S. president is in New York, creating gridlock in midtown; the funeral procession of a rap star further makes the streets impassable. (The subway is not a consideration for billionaire Eric.) Simultaneously, an anticapitalist protest movement is staging demonstrations across the city.
There’s more — Eric’s head of security, Torval (Kevin Durand), has word of a credible threat against Eric’s life. But the smugly detached Eric shows no consternation at the threat or anything else that’s going on. Of greater interest to him is watching the progress of his risky bet against the Chinese yuan on all the glowing screens that surround him in the limo. (In the novel, set in April 2000, Eric’s bet is against the Japanese yen; the movie has been updated to take place about five minutes from now.)
A cerebral, uningratiating work, DeLillo’s book reads much better today than it did when it first came out; the intervening years have been cruel to the real world but very good to the novel. Cosmopolis now reads — and plays onscreen — like it was written last week. However much DeLillo might have had 1999’s “Battle in Seattle” in mind when he wrote the novel, the protest movement he depicts in spring 2000 originally suggested a flight of fancy from a novelist old enough to remember the 1960s. But now it’s just the most conspicuously prescient aspect of his scenario.
Eric can conduct so much of his business inside his tricked-out limo that much of the film consists of him receiving different visitors in the car. As he receives various guests throughout the day, Cosmopolis rises and falls on the strength of each new supporting player. An advantage the film adaptation has over the novel is the way each new actor livens things up with a different vibe, a different energy. The wittiest episodes feature women; first there’s Didi (Juliette Binoche), Eric’s art advisor and lover. It’s a good character turn for Binoche; in the space of a few minutes she gets to be funny in a way she hasn’t been before, and also poignant.
But if both book and movie have a set piece, it’s the later visit from Eric’s “chief of theory” Vija (Samantha Morton), the person who in her glazed-over detachment might be the closest to Eric’s wavelength. Sounding very much like a Don DeLillo character, Vija utters her monotonous visionary pronouncements not as if she were flesh-and-blood but a cybernetic construct, engineered to subtly flatter and bolster Eric at every turn. As the limo glides past an anticapitalism demonstration, Vija’s heartlessness is made brutally funny: the car passes not one but two protesters who have set themselves on fire — the chaos on the streets outside rendered eerily silent inside the car, as if Eric and Vija are watching projected images — and Vija declares, “It’s not original. It’s an appropriation.”
As Eric’s bet against the yuan goes disastrously wrong, he lets it ride — his own form of self-immolation. Eric’s daylong nihilistic bender ultimately brings him face to face with his stalker, one Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), an unhinged currency analyst who used to work for Packer Capital, many, many levels down. Their understated final confrontation has its share of good lines, and even this late in the game, the movie is still poking and prodding the viewer, as if to ask: what will it take to make you walk out?
But the scene with Benno goes on too long, and the scenario of the big shot come face-to-face with the disgruntled, gun-toting little guy doesn’t feel as original as everything else in the story. As if perhaps aware of this, Cronenberg’s ending is a shade more ambiguous than DeLillo’s, and it’s another improvement on the novel.
That said, it’s amazing how Cronenberg — just as with his J.G. Ballard adaptation Crash and his William Burroughs tribute Naked Lunch — has made a film that’s remarkably faithful to the spirit of the author (and it’s a kick to hear dialogue in a movie that has DeLillo’s unmistakable circular rhythms) while also being unmistakably, inimitably Cronenbergian.
Although it builds to that climactic faceoff, Cosmopolis is really about the experience of Eric in his customized limousine, and the marvelous sense of dislocation that Cronenberg creates therein. The excesses of our current gilded age (which hardly ended with the advent of the recession) would seem difficult to satirize, yet Cosmopolis does that and more. The movie is blackly funny to the core and brings a disquieting intelligence to its funhouse mirror treatment of the financial crisis. In a political season defined by unfathomably rich white guys who seem incapable of even affecting empathy for anyone else, Cosmopolis is even more timely than DeLillo, writing a decade ago, or even Cronenberg, shooting just last year, could have imagined.
For more on Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, click here.