Never one to shirk an artistic challenge, writer-director David Cronenberg has previously adapted for the screen two supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novels: William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Here, he attempts to visualise Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, the majority of which takes place in the back of a sleek, white stretch limousine as it ferries 28-year-old financial asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) across Manhattan on a life-changing odyssey from West to East on 47 th Street. His security guard warns against it, but Packer wants a haircut. The interior of the bullet-proofed, marble-floored limo is dominated by Packer’s throne-like seat, and as the ride proceeds at snail’s pace – delayed by a visit from the American president, the funeral of Sufi rapper Brutha Fez and an anti-capitalist demonstration – Packer gives audience to a string of supplicant employees and a lascivious ex-lover, Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche). Stock market figures scroll, wink and fizz on brightly-lit computer screens, as the plunging Chinese yuan threatens to wipe out Packer’s multi-billion dollar fortune, and the once precocious financial wizard confronts the shallow artificiality of his life.
So, you might be thinking, ‘We’re stuck for the duration of the film inside an obscenely ostentatious limo, with only an ultra-rich Wall Street whiz-kid and his obsequious acolytes for company?’ Not quite: Packer does occasionally step out of the car: for example, to eat breakfast with his beautiful but sexless heiress wife, Elise Shiffin (Sarah Gaddon). The point, as Cronenberg makes abundantly clear, is that the limo’s interior is a metaphorical space as well as a physical one: “Being inside the limo is being inside Eric Packer’s head.” That said, the inside of Packer’s head is not a comfortable a place to be, since it’s hard to empathise with someone so privileged and yet so disconnected from reality. The kind of man who talks business to his chief of finance, Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), while his long-suffering doctor probes his ‘asymmetrical’ prostate gland with a rubber-gloved hand. From an acting point of view, Cronenberg’s strategy was both a challenge and an advantage for Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who gives his best performance to date as the paranoid, prolix Packer: “I discovered [the other actors] as they appeared, literally, in Eric Packer’s limousine [. . .] Everyone else had to adapt to what was basically my world.”
A fatalistic air hangs over the journey, and rumours of a ‘credible threat’ – mocked when Packer is ambushed by Mathieu Amalric’s custard-pie prankster – finally prove true, when Packer is cornered by an embittered ex-employee, Benno Levin, played with righteous anger and unhinged ferocity by a dressing-gown-clad Paul Giamatti. Having conducted a solipsistic audit of his life, is Packer now facing a final settling of his accounts? This climactic scene, shot as one long take and resembling a piece of two-handed theatre, crystallises the problem with Cronenberg’s wordy screenplay, which lifts whole chunks of dialogue, verbatim, from DeLillo’s source novel. Delivered by the actors in a flat, metronomic style that the director thinks of as ‘Pinteresque’, these sometimes mordantly funny exchanges are more often stilted and flat. While Harold Pinter’s precise dramatic dialogue was written to be spoken aloud, DeLillo’s words were meant to be read on the page. If you can tolerate this torrent of literary verbiage, you may also be able to get inside the perfectly groomed head of Eric Packer. If not you may simply end up feeling alienated yourself, from the slick, self-doubting Packer and from Cronenberg’s cool, detached portrait of his hermetically sealed world.