Don DeLillo is arguably one of the great authors of our times, his White Noise and Underworld postmodern masterpieces, lacerating their times and the interactions between technology, humanity and changing ways of communication. Cosmopolis, published in 2003 is a harsh but hallucinogenic prose-poem pre-empting the market crash from the point of view of a detached billionaire trader sabotaging his life and fortune through the course of a day’s venture across town in his limousine to get a haircut. Inbetween a few sexual encounters dialogue takes place as a series of semi-philosophical statements or questions, and supporting characters float in and out of our billionaire’s perception as they occupy the back of his limo. It is not a story, per se, and upon hearing of its film adaptation felt a tad skeptical, but what could go wrong in the faithful hands of David Cronenberg? (Don’t answer that yet…)
Cronenberg’s style has been changing dramatically over the years. Gone are the sci-fi body horror outings of Videodrome and The Fly yet his fascination with sex and mechanical technology remained in work like his adaptation of J.G Ballard’s almost pornographic Crash. Imagine then, my obscene and giddy delight when I discovered it was he who would be directing, hoping for a return to form after the rather staid A Dangerous Method. My hopes were high for a visually stunning, zeitgeist making version of the novel, envisioned for these post-crash times, exploring further the psyche of the filthy rich bound up with rapidly changing technology, potentially destroying lives by moving numbers around in the back of a luxury car.
Even the casting of sparkly vampire chappy Robert Pattinson as billionaire Eric Packer didn’t deter me from scampering to the cinema, regardless of the drooling, whooping Twilight groupies seated behind me who squealed with delight at the sight of his heavily airbrushed face. (Notably about halfway through when our hero receives a prostate exam while still theorizing in his limo they made a hasty exit)
Cosmopolis wants to be great. It really really does. But falls sadly short of greatness by remaining maddeningly aloof from any real substance and development. At the risk of sounding like ‘that guy,’ everything you really want to see happens in the trailer. In pretty much quoting DeLillo’s novel word for word, the film suffers. In print, the dialogue is snappy and urgent, cleverly twisting questions that go nowhere, more theory than story. On screen this sadly doesn’t translate – it feels forced, stilted. The gaps in conversation serve to be jarring, but not in a way that adds to the mood of the film. Unlike in the work of David Lynch whose mastery of artifice instills uncanny dread, the spaces here make the film seem like an A Level drama performance. Almost there, but not quite. The unreality is too unreal, the earnest parroting of verse uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.
Yes, Cronenberg’s knack at confining his characters into cramped, surreal spaces comes through, and visually remains impressive, women writhing in the back of the limo alluding to the sex scenes in Crash, yet the narrative and Packer’s creeping madness stay ambiguous and out of reach. There is very little development in him at all. Pattinson occasionally utters the odd good line but does better at gazing coolly into the middle ground. To demonstrate the deterioration, only his appearance gets more disheveled after each sexual encounter. The novel’s character, although cold, has a real yearning about him, a tangible desire to feel and suffer despite his powerful nature. Pattinson’s version, even at his worst, keeps the smugness of the opening scene without any of his internal thoughts revealed.
Weirdly, some pivotal scenes in the book that would have really added to its visual impact were left out, strange for a movie in which the interactions are so faithfully adhered to. This is a real shame – the symbolisim and frantic conflict of DeLillo’sNew Yorkis dumbed down considerably, the protest that surrounds the limo dealt with in minutes. While the film works as cool and considered, it is sad that the only real fraught interaction comes in the final twenty minutes, as Packer faces the ‘threat,’ a neurotic, frail Paul Giamatti who injects some real spirit into things despite the artifice of all the previous dialogue.
It’s pretty cliché to complain about a film adaptation of a well-loved book but in this case I’ll go the whole hog and say it: the novel is infinitely better. I left the cinema disappointed and drained after endless philosophizing and soulless gazing. DeLillo’s novel is a dense, confusing and uncomfortable creation filled with untold menace that sticks in your mind long after finishing. If you must delve into Cosmopolis, give the book a go first.