Aug 22, 2012
A valiant failure. It's no coincidence that no novel of Don DeLillo's has ever been adapted for the screen. One of the greatest American novelists and a master of language, DeLillo's books do not lend themselves to film easily. This did not deter David Cronenberg from adapting Cosmopolis, a novel DeLillo wrote in 2003 about Eric Packer, a young master of the universe who spends all day trapped in his limo, going to get a haircut, while the world implodes around him, in no small part thanks to his predatory bets on the markets. It is symbolism in capital letters, a dark fable about the tightening chokehold of unbridled capitalism. On paper, it may look like it can be made into a film. There is enough incident, allright. Meetings, sex, even a prostrate exam happen in the car, but then there is the question of the words. Don DeLillo writes sentences that cut like black diamonds, but he doesn't write in a language that anybody who exists in reality could ever utter. Cronenberg aims to be as faithful as possible to that sharp, terse, ironic DeLillo style, but, to do that, he would need the finest actors mankind has ever offered to say these lines without sounding like pretentious automatons. The only one to emerge triumphant in this verbose ordeal is the great Paul Giamatti, firing the words like a weapon at the very end of the film. Matthieu Amalric fares very well playing a pie throwing activist and Samantha Morton hangs by a thread as some sort of financial oracle, holding the screen with the sheer conviction of her luminosity. I would have loved to see la Swinton play the part.
The rest is a disaster, mainly because Cronenberg picked Robert Pattinson, a terrible actor, to play the leading role. He is in every frame, and he tries his best, but he is flat as a board. The character is supposed to be morally and emotionally vacant, but the actor playing him cannot be vacant himself. I don't think Pattinson knows the full import of some of the lines he utters. Not because he is stupid, but because he doesn't have the depth. Ryan Gosling would have been perfect. Alas.
Even worse is Sarah Gadon, who, to judge from her performance as Packer's wife, is a totally inexperienced and untalented actress. This makes me question Cronenberg's sanity. Do not give a role with De Lillean dialogue to someone who can't act. It will bring the movie down.
As we have said before about Michael Fassbender's wooden performance in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, it takes a rare talent to make him act badly. The same happens here but with Juliette Binoche, an even greater actor than Fassbender, sounding wooden and fake as an art dealer. I'm starting to think that Cronenberg is just not a great director of actors. He's beginning to like very wordy literary adaptations, and his last two films seem like the life has been punched out of them by so much unwieldy dialogue. He didn't use to be this way. His movies have always exploded with messy life.
Cosmopolis is stiff but much less corseted than A Dangerous Method. Some moments of Cronenbergian pizzazz wake the audience up. The scene with Amalric is wonderful; surprising, violent and funny. So is a moment where Pattinson uses a gun. The scene with the barber (George Touliatos, excellent) has a certain power, even if most everything in this movie looks like a cheap set. I expected the look to be as polished and metallic as in Cronenberg's Crash (a pervy movie that I love), but the light is harsh, which makes the surroundings look phony (as phony as the New York of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, a similar disaster, but made with much more money).
Imagine this movie had David Fincher made it. It would have been better. It sorely needs that Alpha male gloss. On the page, DeLillo's language reads like a trillion bucks: sharp, smooth, velvety, dangerous. But the movie dies trying to bring his style to life. There is not enough sharpness; not enough precision. Yet, as terribly flawed as it is, the endeavor to bring to the screen this dark fable about the collapse of our society is somehow quixotic. You cannot but root for Cronenberg, if you manage to make it to the end.