David Cronenberg has long been one of our best directors. Don DeLillo has long been one of our best novelists. Both men share a rare intelligence and subversive, freeze-dried sensibility. Cronenberg’s more interested in bodily fluids (of all sorts) than DeLillo is — but what were you expecting, twins? Considering the goings-on in Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” (1988), twins wouldn’t be such a good idea, anyway.
This kinship made the news that Cronenberg would be adapting DeLillo’s 2003 novel, “Cosmopolis,” cause for excitement. True, it might be one of the least cinematically promising of DeLillo’s 14 novels (and that’s saying something). Much of it is set in a stretch limo in a traffic jam. But degree of difficulty has never discouraged Cronenberg.
In search of a haircut, the impossibly rich young man (Robert Pattinson) riding in that impossibly elaborate limo tries to cross an impossibly congested Manhattan. He’s Eric Packer, 28, the head of Packer Capital, a global investment firm. Along the way, Packer has sex twice (once in the car, once in a hotel). A couple of times he accidentally meets his wife (neither sexual encounter involves her). He has his daily medical exam, conducted (as usual) in the limo. The funeral of a famous Sufi rapper blocks the way, as do various demonstrations. A man is shot. A barber is found. A disgruntled ex-employee (Paul Giamatti) stalks Packer.
How rich is Packer? He tells his art adviser (Juliette Binoche) that he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel and put it in his apartment. Wealth has become meaningless to him. It’s just so many binary bits flashing across a screen. “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time,” Packer Capital’s chief of theory (Samantha Morton) says to him. “Money is talking to itself.”
The words come straight from the novel. Cronenberg has been very faithful to it (references to the “yen” are now “yuan,” though — what a difference nine years can make). It’s a classic DeLillo observation: at once profound, portentous, and (because portentous) wildly comic. On the page it works just fine. DeLillo’s dialogue is a series of bank shots on a beveled billiard table. The result is a conveyor belt of aphorisms expressed in a series of bite-size soliloquies.
DeLillo’s characters don’t really talk to each other. They talk at each other, at oblique angles. “They” might not be the right word, actually. The characters’ mouths move but it’s DeLillo doing the talking. He’s interested in human thought, not human speech. At heart, he’s the world’s smartest (and funniest) ventriloquist.
Ventriloquy isn’t very filmic, though. Edgar Bergen made it work on the radio. Cronenberg can’t make it work on the screen. What succeeds when read doesn’t succeed when heard. Flat, affectless dialogue calls for flat, affectless delivery. The result sounds gravely ridiculous — which on the page comes across as irony; on the screen, as phoniness or, worse, stiltedness. The novel is extremely funny. It’s hilarious as well as horrific (all sorts of bad things are going on outside the limo — and a few inside of it, too). Yet whenever the movie is funny, it feels like a mistake. Comedy has never been a Cronenberg strength.
Poor Pattinson does the best he can. He’s not terrible. But he’s definitely out of his element, if not beyond his depth, an altar boy in a bishop’s robes. Packer is three parts early James Spader to two parts classic Bond villain. Whether shaken or stirred — or even both — that’s a very hard mixture to pull off. The actors all pretty much come across as really smart zombies, as adept at narcolepsy as eloquence. That’s not their fault. Tone in DeLillo is a matter of micrometers. Off even by a fraction, it fractures. Giamatti is proof of that. He tries to bend his lines, rather than go with them: to play them rather than let them play him. It can’t be done. So he seems borderline rabid. Pattinson’s most famous for playing a vampire. Is Giamatti auditioning to be one of his werewolf rivals? Zombieism looks good by comparison.