In David Cronenberg’s latest film Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28 year old billionaire asset manager who decides one morning that he needs a haircut on the other side of town. But traffic in Manhattan has slowed to a near standstill due to the president being in town, and it takes the entire day and well into the night for his limo to reach its destination.
Along the way, Packer’s associates hop in one by one to meet with him, discuss financial transactions beyond the ken of mere mortals, and hop out a few blocks later. In fact, Packer is able to occasionally get out, have meals with his new wife, have a couple of sexual trysts (with women who are not his new wife), and still catch up with the slowly-moving vehicle.
Clearly, a subway ride or a Citi Bike or just getting out and walking, for god’s sake, would have taken less time, but I suppose that’s the point, if this movie can really be said to have a point.
Cosmopolis is a rare film where I knew within the first two minutes that it would be an absolute chore to sit through, with its characters awkwardly droning on and on, their voices never rising above a murmur. But I stuck with it anyway, hoping that it would contain at least something, some morsel of wisdom, some profound truth, one line of quotable dialogue, anything that would make it worth watching. How could this movie not be worth watching? It’s based on a novel by Don DeLillo, one of the literary greats of our time.
That’s the opinion of the critical establishment, not necessarily mine, though I will say DeLillo’s White Noise and Libra are easily two of my favorite novels ever. Sorry to say, nearly every other thing he’s written has been, for me, plotless drudgery that almost dares you to give up on it halfway through. And that includes Cosmopolis, one of DeLillo’s lesser entries, which I admit I only finished because it’s one of his shortest novels.
DeLillo’s style is instantly recognizable, and also easy to parody. He has his share of detractors, and it’s not hard to see why. DeLillo rarely writes characters who talk like actual human beings. And while this approach is often brilliant and hilarious on the printed page, when you hear it spoken aloud, it is bizarre. It sounds like hardboiled film noir narration from the year 5,000 A.D. It sounds like someone figured out how to get Siri to write a screenplay. In Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s observations about everything from currency speculation to cyber-capitalism to rap music seem teleported in from another galaxy. Here’s but a small sampling:
As Packer heads across town, we learn he’s in the process of losing hundreds of millions of dollars betting on the Yuan. His limo encounters a protest that seems inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement (even though the source novel was published in 2003). And at one point, a doctor gets in his limo to examine his prostate (in front of one of his employees, no less), and tells him that his prostate is, as dialogue reminds us ad nauseum throughout the film, “asymmetrical”.
Packer also gets word from his security team that there have been various threats made on his life, which appear credible in the wake of an attack on the head of the IMF. Packer not only ignores their warnings, he deliberately propels himself into a face-to-face meeting with his would-be assassin. And then, the movie just stops.
I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say a movie with an unsatisfying ending doesn’t end, that it simply stops. But trust me, this has never been more accurate than with Cosmopolis. This film contains the most abrupt cut to black since The Sopranos. This is one of the most non-endingly, just-stoppingest films you’ll ever see.
The would-be killer is a former employee named Benno Levin, played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti really gives it his all here, investing his stylized dialogue with real emotion, though I still had no clue what he was going on about. As he points his gun at Packer’s head, I felt like he was also pointing a monologue gun at my own head, softly and rapidly firing word bullets into my brain.
Levin: You tried to predict movements in the Yuan by drawing on patterns from nature. Yes. Of course. The mathematical properties of tree rings, sunflower seeds, the limbs of galactic spirals. I learned this with the Baht. I loved the cross-harmonies between nature and data. You taught me this. You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise. But you forgot something along the way.
Levin: The importance of the lopsided. The thing that’s skewed a little. You were looking for balance. Beautiful balance. Equals parts, equal sides. I know this. I know you. But you should’ve been tracking the Yuan in its ticks and quirks. A little quirk. A misshape.
I must confess I eventually tuned him out and started looking up all the negative reviews on IMDb, which were much more entertaining than the actual film. Most of those reviews mentioned a high number of walkouts when this thing played in theaters, and I can’t say I’m surprised. As someone who read the book, I knew what to expect and yet I still felt myself slipping into a coma; I can’t even imagine how legions of Pattinson’s fans, Twi-hards who actually enjoy Stephenie Meyer’s banal prose, reacted to this thing.
For going on five years now, ever since the first Twilight film, the acting skills (or lack thereof) of its two leads have been the subject of massive internet debate. In the case of the former Edward Cullen, this movie is not going to settle the argument either way. Pattinson seems relatively at ease with the ornate dialogue, and he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself here, but like everyone else, he’s trapped in a purgatory of ungainly source material.
I will say this: once I turned on the captions, I could absorb the dialogue and almost grasp the movie’s themes. But if you’re going to do that, you might as well just read the book.
This is the first Don DeLillo novel to be adapted for the screen, but not the first time DeLillo has gotten screen credit. He also wrote the screenplay for the Michael Keaton film Game 6, which reuses lots of themes from various DeLillo novels, all set against the backdrop of Bill Buckner’s historic error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. (In fact, I think a lengthy conversation between a would-be assassin and his target is the ending of Game 6 as well.) That film was better than Cosmopolis, but still nothing that could be called very good.
Director David Cronenberg has long since matured past graphic scenes of heads exploding, but there are still some flashes of the goremaster we know and love here, particularly in the gruesome attack on the head of IMF (where his attacker makes damn sure that eyeball is good and gouged out), and another moment where Packer blows a hole through his own hand for no reason whatsoever.
Cronenberg has a habit of filming unfilmable novels, most notably Naked Lunch and Crash, so this probably seemed like a natural fit. But this is one unfilmable novel that probably should have stayed unfilmed.
Perhaps the real problem was the cast trying to make the weird dialogue sound natural. Giamatti is the only one who ever speaks above a soft whisper. Maybe the material deserved a more outré, over the top approach. Other than that, it’s hard to imagine anyone making a “better” adaptation of Cosmopolis without throwing most of it out.
I wish Libra or White Noise would have been made into a film instead (John Malkovich once considered directing an adaptation of the former, and Barry Sonnenfeld, shudder, had at one point optioned the latter). But thanks to the poor reaction to Cosmopolis (and also Game 6) that seems to be becoming ever more unlikely.