Here we go again. Only a few days ago we had Walter Salles’ lumbering, rigidly faithful film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Now we have David Cronenberg’s equally lumbering, rigidly faithful film version of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. I wish both Salles and Cronenberg had heeded Ezra Pound’s modernistic injunction in the 1930s to “Make it new!”
Despite having both selected rather intransigent material, neither director has understood that film needs to transmogrify its literary source instead of merely illustrating it. Cronenberg’s many other adaptations of novels, such as The Dead Zone (1983), The Naked Lunch (1991), and Crash (1996), are better illustrations of “making it new” than his latest. But the Canadian director’s best movies — however stomach-churning — were the earlier horror movies based on his own very original screenplays: Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1982).
In a way, given that Cronenberg’s misanthropic films are so visceral, both literally and figuratively, and given his taste for morbid, modern allegories, one can see why he was attracted to DeLillo’s 2003 novel with its multiple themes of power, technology, violence, terrorism, the movements and countermovements of contemporary culture, and its anti-capitalist subtext. The problem is that most of the novel takes place in a white stretch limo while most of the action (a demo, the funeral of a rap artist, killings) takes place at a distance outside it.
Cronenberg sticks doggedly to the page, so that the film lacks narrative momentum and is visually flat, despite surreal episodes with rats and a pie-throwing anarchist (Mathieu Amalric briefly). But more unforgivable is the transposition of paragraphs of DeLillo’s brilliantly descriptive prose into the mouths of the actors. What was dialogue in the novel, which one can mull over, becomes lines and lines and lines in the film. I therefore spent some of my time, between looking at my watch and the screen, reading the French subtitles because the dialogue was written to be read, not spoken.
These lines are delivered in a stilted, portentous manner by the well-meaning cast, headed by Robert Pattinson. In fact, he is in every scene — the others only delivering cameos. Given that he has to portray an unsympathetic, hubristic character, Pattinson does as good a job as any, playing both cold and cool.
He is a 28-year-old multi-billionaire riding around Manhattan in a stretch limo during the course of a day in April 2000, interrupted by a series of visitors, including women, with whom he has sex while discussing finances and philosophy; his doctor, who finds that he has an asymmetrical prostate — though nobody knows what that means — and a black rapper, the only person with whom he shows some real emotion. The limo, a symbol of arrogance, wealth, and ostentation, which cuts Pattinson off from the real world outside — seen almost as back projection — does not protect him from his destiny. The final confrontation between Pattinson and his antithesis (played mostly with a towel over his head by Paul Giamatti) — “everything in our lives, yours and mine, has brought us to this moment,” says Giamatti –is a verbose, didactic, static encounter, which squeezes any drama out of the scene. I wonder what those teenage girls who voted Pattinson the “greatest male hottie” would make of it all.
Ironically, despite or because of recent developments such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the global financial crisis, the film, which has a futuristic air, though set in contemporary New York, is “so 2000.” Once again, Jean-Luc Godard’s prescient work offers exemplars. Alphaville (1965) says more than Cosmopolis about Western capitalist society today, and Contempt (1963), from Alberto Moravia’s novel Il Disprezzo, is one of the best examples of how to “make new” a film based on a novel.