By Simon Abrams | The Playlist May 25, 2012 at 8:12AM
"Cosmopolis," an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s typically provocative novel of the same name, is the first feature film since 1999's "eXistenZ" that filmmaker David Cronenberg has directed and scripted. This in part explains why "Cosmopolis" is such a triumph: it’s both an exceptional adaptation and a remarkable work unto itself.
Cronenberg makes slight but salient changes to DeLillo’s source narrative. These changes, which are best described by one character as “slight variation[s],” prove that Cronenberg’s given serious consideration to what should and shouldn’t be represented in his adaptation of the author’s ruminative, conversation-driven narrative. For example, in Cronenberg’s film, Eric Packer (a surprisingly adequate Robert Pattinson), an ambivalent and self-destructive power broker, does not get to have sex with his wife like he’s wanted to do throughout DeLillo’s book. Other changes, like the fact that Packer is investing and studying the steady rise in the Chinese yuan in the film and not the Japanese yen, as in the book, are equally striking. These differences noticeably enrich DeLillo’s original story, making Cronenberg’s "Cosmopolis" that much more rewarding in its own dizzying way.
It’s fitting that Pattinson, today’s It boy, plays Packer, considering who Cronenberg’s Packer is. As a former start-up wunderkind, the 28 year-old Packer is comically death-obsessed. “We die every day,” he risibly exclaims to one of his sizeable retinue of advisors. Packer gets daily check-ups from his doctors partly because he enjoys the routine of it but also because he’s looking for something to confirm his suspicions. He’s convinced he’s found that something when he’s told that his prostate is asymmetrical. It’s pretty funny to see Pattinson, being the young, pretty tabula rasa that he is, play Packer, a wheeler-dealer that used to be hot shit but is now unable to sleep because he fears that he’s no longer relevant.
Throughout both versions of "Cosmopolis," Packer searches for a break in his routine. Against the advice of his over-protective bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand), he fights back anarcho-protestors and gridlock traffic caused by the President’s visit to another part of town so he can go get a haircut. The ritual, and also the familiarity of this ritual, is what matters to Packer. But Packer also insists on going out and getting his haircut now because, as he explains during one of many declamatory speeches, of the turbulent conditions Torval has warned of. He’s no longer waiting on his death, he’s inviting it.
Packer is in that sense, as is also later explained point-blank in a speech, a contradictory figure. For example, he allows Vija Kinski (Samantha Morton), one of the more decisively outspoken of his advisors, to tell him that the anti-capitalist protestors that are impeding his progress are actually just another part of the capitalist system. Pattinson’s Packer latently agrees with this assessment but that changes when he sees one protestor self-immolate himself. Kinski insists that the protestor’s gesture is unimportant, but Pattinson sulkily protests that it has to be. The fact that Pattinson’s practically pouting when he rejects Morton’s negative assessment is telling. His death wish is sheer petulance, something that doesn’t come across as directly in the original novel.
Cronenberg and Pattinson’s Packer is a different kind of suicidal but their character isn’t significantly less active in constructing his own demise. In DeLillo’s "Cosmopolis," Packer knows what’s happening with the yen, whose value keeps exponentially increasing, but is keeping that knowledge close to his chest. In Cronenberg’s variation, he's less sure. Packer is thus more immediately defined by his frustration with the finite-ness of his capabilities. He looks to others for solutions to his problems and finds that his yes-team can only confirm his own impotence. He is not slyly organizing his own downfall, but frantically seeking it out, unsure of whether or not he can find what he’s looking for. Packer only succeeds by sheer dumb luck: the man and an assassin looking for him have a lot more in common than the two realize.
At the same time, Cronenberg doesn’t slim down DeLillo’s simultaneously sprawling and precisely dense narrative as much as he carves his own flourishes onto it. A couple of scenes, including Packer’s interest in bidding on a chapel full of art, and his visit to a night club full of drug-fueled ravers, are only necessary to establish a uniform pace to Cronenberg’s narrative. But in that sense, these scenes are just as essential as the ones where Kinski and Torval give Packer advice. Everything matters in Cronenberg’s "Cosmopolis," but not everything is necessarily the same as DeLillo’s book. And that makes the film, as a series of discussions about inter-related money-minded contradictions, insanely rich and maddeningly complex. We can’t wait to rewatch it. [A]