If ever a film might be used to demonstrate how not to adapt a novel, that film is Cosmopolis. Don DeLillo published his tale in 2003, but set it “In the year 2000 – A Day in April.” Director, David Cronenberg, has taken this black satire on global capitalism, and let us believe the action is unfolding in the very near future, in a New York subsiding into anarchy and dysfunction.
Like Joyce’s Ulysses, the story takes place in the course of a single day. The protagonist is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old asset manager, whose genius with markets has made him a billionaire. His odyssey begins when he leaves his luxury Manhattan apartment in search of a haircut. Most of the movie will take place inside his stretched limo, as Packer conducts meetings with various employees – his chief of technology, his chief of finance, his art advisor, his head of theory, and so on. He has sex in the car, and a medical examination.
The streets are gridlocked because of a visit by the President, and the funeral of a famous rap musician. There are riots and apocalyptic scenes with people carrying dead rats, or immolating themselves on the sidewalks. Packer watches impassively through the one-way glass of his limo. He even spies his wife of 22 days, blonde, svelte Elise Schifrin (Sarah Gadon), poet and heiress.
Packer has placed a huge bet on the Yuan falling (it was the Yen in DeLlllo’s book), but against all logic it seems to be going up. He is watching his fortune disappear as he edges towards his haircut. It is obvious that he is really seeking his own death. As such, he is the living embodiment of the kind of extreme Wall Street capitalism that knew (and knows) no end to excess apart from total implosion. When the Global Financial Crisis hit it seemed that the big merchant banks had a death wish and intended to take the whole world along for the ride.
If this sounds intriguing, I apologise. In DeLillo’s novel the conversations come across like a series of quasi-poetic incantations. In the screenplay, credited to Cronenberg himself, huge slabs of dialogue have been lifted from the book and transplanted into the mouths of actors. The result is stupefying. Sentences that sound clever in the book are metastasized into clichés, profundity becomes banality. We left with a movie that is dull and pretentious to the point of unwatchability.
The great power of the cinema is that of movement, but in Cosmopolis the characters sit and drone at each other for minutes that feel like hours, while New York silently goes bananas outside the car window. Their conversations are arch and cryptic, almost impossible to deliver in a natural manner.
By now David Cronenberg surely deserves some award for being one of the most overrated talents in contemporary cinema. This prolific Canadian director has always been weak with scripts and actors, but rarely has he made a more leaden film. The pacing is non-existent, merely a series of episodes strung together like a shishkebab.
One feels for actors such as Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, because it is impossible to inject life into the lines they have to speak. As for Robert Pattinson, of teenage vampire fame, he is still to reveal the slightest trace of acting ability. In this part he is so inert he makes Elvis seem like Sir Laurence Olivier. Alas, not even Sir Larry could do anything with the role of Eric Packer. He may represent global capitalism seeking its own death, but most viewers will be more than satisfied with finding the exit.
Cosmopolis, France/Canada/Portugal/Italy, rated MA, 108 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 11, 2012