David Cronenberg has adapted a book by Don DeLillo nearly word-for-word, scene-for-scene. This is one of the most exciting propositions of film 2012, because it posits the potentially perfect meeting of two strangely similar artists. Throughout this review, I’m going to compare the two freely, film and book, book and film, because Cronenberg has hewn so close to DeLillo that a close comparison is essential to thinking about his film.
DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is a brazen, tight, self-consciously arch attempt to define a very difficult problem: What comes after the boredom of the aughts — the feeling that, in a world where everything is attainable, nothing really matters: not death, politics, murder, religion, money, or art — overtakes a person who has actually attained it? What does a person who has risen above all of this feel, and what kind of a world produces boredom from so much change and action?
In the film, a surprisingly adept Robert Pattinson plays this person; he’s central to every scene and dominates most of them. The story is an ingenious attempt to weave every major modern issue into one straight narrative, across one day, involving a person who represents much of how the world works in 2012 and why it doesn’t function. Pattinson plays a 28-year-old investments-and-stocks whiz named Eric Packer, personal worth never exactly specified, but undeniably upwards of $30 billion. In the opening shot, a slow crawl along a line of sleek limousines that leads to his sharply amused face, Packer, standing outside of a bank he may well own, looks like a man whose wolf-like calm and sartorial crispness are an unbeatable threat to anyone who might encounter them. With a hint of a smile that widens as the day goes on (and gets worse), he announces to his hulking chief of security, Torval (Kevin Durand), that he needs a haircut, coolly overrules the chief’s safety concerns, and so begins an entire day spent with Packer as he entertains and/or tolerates visitors to his modified stretch limo, which moves like a sputtering conveyer belt across a Manhattan plagued by modern disasters (a gridlocked presidential visit, numerous assassination attempts, a global stock meltdown, economic riots, and the funeral procession of a rap star all threaten to leave Packer’s hair slightly too long.)
DeLillo tried to cull all of this into an answer to his questions, but his book is mainly concerned with finding interesting ways to condense the hyper-world he imagines (current New York) into gnomic chunks in which the question can simply be repeated in different ways, by characters who remain in awe of the modern world. Anyone reading can recognize how intentionally stilted he writes their dialogue, how everyone speaks as if they’re aware of the archetype they represent within the book itself and are bored by it. Cronenberg, always interested in the alienation created by the modern world, makes his entire movie out of that dialogue, almost completely unchanged. Both artists seem very excited by the prospect of committing all of their considerable artistic powers to a fable that both embraces (in its style) and condemns (with everything its characters say and do) the ugliest parts of the way that America is heading.
Far more than in the book, the limousine is key to the movie. Packer has had it “Prousted” — completely sound- and- bullet-proofed by a special cork lining — because of his fanatical (though, as the movie begins, waning) obsession with personal security. This allows Cronenberg an intentionally hermetic moving set in which to play around. The overall feel of the movie, though, is that Cronenberg is doing nothing but playing around. The finest commentary and best running joke (carried over from the more subtle novel) is about the smells that the limo’s Prousting has no ability to block. Every malodorous visitor presents Packer with a new intrusion, from farts to sex to oily food to cigars to gasoline to every kind of body sweat. Packer is assaulted by smells he can neither see nor control, which is exactly how the stocks he’s tracking function, and the two are presented as equally important.
Every smelly intruder is a version of one basic type of person, the type who, like Packer himself, can casually factor the destruction of others into their slightly amused plans: there are callous, venal, unpredictably arrogant corporate heads; boy geniuses who flummox entire economies with a touch of their tablets; rioters; lone nut gunmen; doctors with a shaming finger up Packer’s ass; Eastern European militants turned bodyguards; and women who’ve weaponized sex. Cronenberg has taken the DeLillo novel directly from the page, packed it with stars (Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, and Paul Giamatti are each given one scene’s worth of DeLillo dialogue to devour), and changed little — the spot chosen for some intense rutting has been moved into the limo, a speech about missing the reality in childhood movies has been deleted — mainly for the sake of momentum.
It’s less obvious in the novel, because DeLillo’s writing expresses depth through simplicity so much better than Cronenberg’s direction, but Eric Packer is in both works a resolutely illogical man, and not only in the way that was intended. He sabotages his own multi-billion-dollar company simply because a particular currency’s fluctuations mystify him, sending the world economy into a panic and leaving millions, no doubt, jobless, but he cries like a baby over the death of a rapper he was friendly with. He treats most women in his life with an arrogant disdain, talking to them in ways that would get many people arrested, but scrambles to lie to his wife about the sex she smells all over him. He is alternately the utterly cold corporate raider and the simpering, immature little boy, which may have been just the dichotomy DeLillo was aiming for, but is too much of a juggling act for a director as rigid and unsentimental as Cronenberg to pull off smoothly.
Whatever their difference in abilities, neither artist seems to know what to do about the giant themes they’re playing with, the postmodernity in excess; both seem to think it’s enough to pack it all in, streamline it story-wise, and let it simply feel significant. This may be the right tactic for conveying the way that the world has gone chaotic: if Packer is at a loss to explain what’s happening around him — why the elusive currencies, why the riots, why the unsatisfying sex, why the inability to truly feel nothing about it all? — then why should we expect Cronenberg to be able to? But if it is the right tactic, then the movie simply isn’t asking the right questions.
Cosmopolis is a slippery movie, sharp and harsh in many ways, frustratingly obtuse in others. For Cronenberg, it seems to be essentially an exercise in creating a post-Downturn mood and dialing it up for full, chic impact. His Cosmopolis is sexy, bright, and dying to seem apathetic about its deeper meaning, the better to make Packer’s mentality a scary reality. The book, written five years before the Downturn, is more effective (and fun), because DeLillo, better and more subtle with words than Cronenberg is with images, allows you to imagine that Packer’s world is a prescient inflation of reality rather than a deliberate distortion of it. Because the novel plays out in his head, where everything could plausibly, within the wide-ranging rules of a novel (especially one by DeLillo), be an extension of his ego, we can better accept the crafted contrivance. In the film, we accept it as real, or at least as real as Cronenberg’s hyperreal style, because that’s how movies work: we’re seeing actual people talk, and no amount of lens curvature can erase that. Cronenberg clearly thinks DeLillo has come up with a nifty, timely idea, and that he can be just as nifty and timely (if a quite a bit artier) if he simply translates the book verbatim. If nothing else, this is an argument against the screenwriting gurus who insist that books and scripts must essentially differ, but it isn’t totally an argument against the intrinsically filmic nature of DeLillo’s writing. DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is eminently filmable, a powder keg of topical themes clearly designed to be taken as many things at once; Cronenberg’s accepts the offer, but it’s a mixed bag of seriousness.
Still, Cronenberg can handle a sure, steady, creepy tone like few other directors, and his talent for layering indelible images, one on top of the other, is as good as any of the best working today. His constant close ups make heads pop out of the center of the screen, seemingly detached from their backgrounds, lit to stand out, the same way DeLillo’s prose emphasizes details like the shape of a person’s head, the precise shade of their skin, or the particular genus of a plant that someone happens to pass. Cronenberg’s never at a loss to film the four-by-ten innards of the limo for maximum visual impact, nor does he miss a chance to direct Pattinson’s facial expressions into a frenzy of repressed frustration that his camera can then pick up. If you don’t mind indulging him as he ticks off the loaded scenes from DeLillo’s good but uneven book, you’ll find Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis stimulating beyond its visual snap. If you do mind, you’ll find it a novelistic slog through a pretentious list of topical references. Cronenberg would be happy with either, because his movie is both.