A man drives across New York to get a haircut and it takes all day: simplicity itself. Celebrated Canadian director David Cronenberg enters the running for the coveted Palme d’Or prize at the 65th Cannes Film Festival with Cosmopolis (2012), an overly faithful adaptation of the Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name.
Eric Packer (Twilight star Robert Pattinson) is a financial giant with hundreds of millions of dollars of capital at his disposal – and dispose of it he does, betting it all against Chinese currency and losing. Surrounded by his own security detail and riding in a state-of-the-art stretch limo, Packer crawls along the Manhattan streets, occasionally stepping out into the ‘real world’ to talk to his new wife Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon) or to meet with various experts (Samantha Morton’s Vija Kinsky) and hirelings (Juliet Binoche’s Didi Fancher). In addition, someone is trying to kill Packer; there are riots on the streets and the traffic is gridlocked because the US President is in town.
Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, urged on by a fine Howard Shore score, aspires to be tense, demented and even surreal, but without a single believable moment. The quietness and lifelessness of the New York streets – filmed almost entirely in a studio – is just wrong. The limo, Packer explains, is lined with cork to keep out street noise, but you’d wonder why he bothered. The real world that Packer is supposedly cocooned from doesn’t exist anywhere in the film. Even a key riot is a tame affair, resembling an overenthusiastic flash mob. A man burns on the pavement while a dazed looking Morton’s Kinsky burbles on about theory and capital, claiming immolation is not original.
Every character talks like they’ve simply been lifted off DeLillo’s page rather than sculpted for cinema – “The traffic speaks in inches”, the bodyguard reports – and only a handful of the actors involved manage to convince us that they actually understand their prose, let alone make it interesting. Huge chunks of the novel’s text are cut and paste into the screenplay by Cronenberg, a screenplay which he claims – all too credibly – to have dashed off in six days. For once, the Canadian master of body horror – for all his reputation as a visionary film director – seems to have no visual ambition. Cosmopolis is more an on-screen radio play, an audiobook with pictures, anti-cinema.
Cronenberg’s latest does have its moments. Mathieu Amalric turns up as an anarchist pie-slinger whilst Paul Giamatti does his very best with the mad nonsense he has to spout, injecting it with some feeling at least. In spite of his detractors, lead actor Pattinson isn’t bad here either, channelling his inner Christopher Walken to competent effect. Yet despite the quality of talent involved, there’s simply no anger, no rage, no wit, no spark, no dash. Cosmopolis is purely pedestrian – something Packer should have perhaps considered.