Intriguing but numbing and visually stunted, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of “Cosmopolis” captures the weary philosophical deadpan of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of financial cataclysm. Mr. Cronenberg’s script, which draws almost exclusively on dialogue from the book, mashes up prophetic commentary on high-velocity capital with sudden and intense bursts of violence. Like the book, the movie winks at profundity, but its few and widely dispersed charms are satirical.
Set largely in the claustrophobic confines of a stretch limousine, “Cosmpolis” follows a day in the life of the impossibly wealthy Eric Packer. Played with unstinting flatness by “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson, Eric has decided that he wants a haircut (he uses the royal “we” in the book and the film) and commands his security chief to get him across Manhattan to his barber. The haircut is one of the signal jokes of the film. Eric is in the midst of a brutal carry trade that he refuses to hedge or unwind and is in the midst of getting the financial haircut of his life.
As his limo creeps haltingly across town — traffic is slowed to a crawl by a presidential visit and a celebrity funeral cortege — he is visited by several associates. From the interior of his limo, he spots his wife in a cab. Elise (Sarah Gadon), a poet and heiress, has been Eric’s wife for just a few weeks, and already their relationship is perfunctory and sexless. Eric tries to entice Elise into an assignation later in the day, but she demurs. Instead, Eric seeks solace in a grim, perfunctory encounter with his old lover and art dealer Didi (Juliette Binoche). When she mentions that an “important” Rothko is about to come on the market, Eric counters by suggesting he acquire the entire Rothko Chapel so that he might lock it away in his $100 million apartment.
The most enjoyable sequence is Eric’s meeting with his “chief of theory,” played by Samantha Morton. “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time,” she tells him. “Money is talking to itself.” She says this almost precisely at the same time as the limo is set upon by violent anti-capitalist protesters in Times Square.
While Mr. DeLillo’s book drew on the sense of collapse triggered by the crisis in technology stocks in 2000, and the market shocks in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it seems more prophetic when set in the present day, against the backdrop of a slow-motion global economic meltdown. Indeed, one of the few alterations made to update the story to the present day was changing Eric’s currency deal to involve the yuan rather than the yen. What underlies the trade isn’t a macroeconomic forecast or a mathematical supposition, but something almost spiritual. He tells an associate, “Any assault on the borders of perception is going to seem rash at first.”
Perhaps the final joke of “Cosmopolis” is that Eric is, for all intents and purposes, a kind of doomed god. He’s attended by high priests, demands human sacrifices, and possesses a kind of omniscience that allows him to see into the future. This is what drives Mr. Cronenberg’s vision of Eric. He is a god in eclipse, a god whose existence inspires a sense of cosmic outrage in others, including one antagonist in particular who emerges late in the film but whose presence is augured throughout.
The creeping darkness of “Cosmopolis” plays nicely against the single-day structure. But the discombobulating, concussive weirdness of the film eventually takes its toll. At times acidly funny, “Cosmopolis” fails in trying to impart higher meaning, and concusses when it means to dazzle.
CREDITS: Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Based on the novel by Don DeLillo.
RATING: R, for simulated sex, profanity and violence
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS