Sterile. Clinical. Walking dead. The critical line on David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis has used one or more of those words and their synonyms in various combinations, usually in disapproval. But since the eighties Cronenberg films have relied on the oversaturated images and well lit proscenia to create the sense of faint dread akin to an oncologist’s office after hearing the cheerful secretary’s welcome. Cronenberg’s cameras adore the gleam of appliances. Not since Crash has a script provided so many chances to hold up gadgets to the camera: the soundproof limo in which Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson)glides down tumult-filled Manhattan streets boats aqueous plasma screens, black leather seat backs stiff and crinkly enough for the car fetishists of Crash, beautiful crystal tumblers. As usual his eye for décor is the best in an Anglo-American director since Douglas Sirk’s, and sterile and walking dead were hurled at him too.
As long as we’re permitted to watch Pattinson mumble to an ever-present bodyguard (Jay Baruchel) and play with his toys, Cosmopolis is a hoot, a goosier thrill than the terrible Dom DeLillo novel on which it’s faithfully based. It’s a film for which the term “droll” exists. Like David Bowie coldly taking the sights of Nixon’s America in “Young Americans,” Packer thrives on distance, protected by the hundreds of billions he may or may not have. One of the novel and film’s conceits, prescient in the wake of the ongoing global financial meltdown, is to remind us that Packer doesn’t really have any money. Credit default swaps and leveraged risks are simulacra of currency, reminders of liquid assets. At any rate Packer is so detached from his surroundings that he eats at greasy spoons for breakfast and lunch; it’s not slumming, he just doesn’t notice But as he did in Naked Lunch with Judy Davis and Dead Ringers with Genevieve Bujold, Cronenberg casts a couple of stellar actresses who take their turns holding mirrors up to the corpse. While Sarah Gadon can’t find the appropriate notes to strike as Packer’s wife of twenty days, Juliette Binoche has fun writhing on that leather and teasing Pattinson, and Samantha Morton is a riot as Packer’s “ideas consultant,” a breathing dictionary of DeLillo’s received ideas about capitalism. She’s even more zombified than Pattinson — in the best sense.
About twenty minutes too long, Cosmopolis offers the most fulsome compliment a writer will receive: it takes DeLillo’s ideas seriously. Although the victim of perplexed reviews in 2003, the novel is the sort of tract to which devotees of White Noise might be attracted. From Harlot’s Ghost to DeLillo’s own Libra (his best book, better than the cinder block called Underworld), paranoia has produced marvelous inventions in fiction, but it can also curdle into a manner. To prove his point a writer resorts to creep shows. The movie’s conclusion—a fifteen-minute verbal duel between Packer and a former employee who drapes a dirty towel around his head like a wimple, played by Paul Giamatti—works if DeLillo’s thirteen ways of looking at paranoia fascinate you more than me. Giamatti is expert, but for his arias to resound they have to serve as the culmination of a symphonic work in which the forces of anarchy and capitalism aren’t mere noise, aren’t graffiti on a limousine, a cream pie in the face. If Cosmopolis the novel is precious and shallower than intended, then Cronenberg was the ideal adapter.