David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” adapts Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, though not exactly for the first time: The plot was originally conceived for “Game 6,” a screenplay DeLillo wrote in the early 1990s that sat unfilmed until 2005. In the meantime, he cannibalized the structure for “Cosmopolis,” published in 2003: hence, two takes on overlapping material.
Robert Pattinson is the bait-and-switch marquee lead (the poster shamelessly positions him as a pale vampiric type ominously glowing in sunlight) that allows Cronenberg to make his most adventurous, potentially audience-alienating work since 1996’s “Crash.” Once again, an automobile takes center stage: a gigantic limo carries 28-year-old millionaire broker Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) around New York, on a meandering course to get a haircut while his fortune dissipates to nothing on a bet against the yuan.
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The basic structure applies to both films. In “Game 6,” another man facing the possibility of imminent financial ruin — in this case, middle-aged playwright Nicky Rogan (Michael Keaton) —- evades the inevitable by slowly traipsing through a bad traffic day in Manhattan. Both films include a cross-town trip to the barbershop, where the protagonist is given a gun and told to prepare himself for climactic violence.
The only significant dialogue overlap is about peeing under the Manhattan Bridge during work as a taxi driver. In “Game 6,” it’s Nicky who shares this reminiscence with a driver. Now he’s a well-off playwright, but an almost-certain pending divorce and potentially career-killing review from feared/hated critic Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.) both threaten his bank account and remind him of a time when he was less well off. Much younger and historically disconnected, Eric can’t seem to remember a moment he didn’t possess complete financial control. Impossibly moneyed, he listens to this same dialogue, now expanded, between longtime barber Anthony (George Touliatos) and driver Ibrahim (Abdul Ayaola).
Set in a barely evoked 1986, “Game 6” is ultimately optimistic: When playwright and critic finally meet, they discover a shared baseball love, a connection magically dispelling antagonism.
Eric knows of a credible death threat, and his progress culminates in another inevitable showdown in which views are traded at gunpoint. The outcome of this exchange is far less heartening: Eric and his would-be assassin effectively act out an allegorical representation of the complete disconnect of 1%-ers who work in a field where (as his shrink puts it) “money is talking to itself” from the rest of the planet.
“Game 6” director Michael Hoffman tries to make DeLillo’s one-size-fits-all-mouthpieces dialogue into a conventional narrative shape. It’s paced like farce, with manic Keaton making omelettes, gargling in the middle of sentences, running between cabs and generally trying to lighten the mood. Around him, actors similarly attempt to make the dialogue sound like it’s coming out of different people’s mouths. Only Downey succeeds, but for DeLillo fans it’s a mesmerizing failure: an attempt to pay tribute to an already canonized writer by ill-advisedly trying to make his work more accessible and entertaining.
“Cosmopolis” bends itself to accommodate DeLillo. Unlike “Game 6″‘s conflicting thespian modes, everyone in “Cosmopolis” pitches their performance at one-fifth the level of normal human emotion. Relatively subdued depictions of maternal exhaustion (Emily Hampshire), overworked freakouts (Philip Nozuka) and sexual abandon (Juliette Binoche) all operate in the same register. Much like Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence,” Eric becomes as dangerous as his worst critics might have expected, turning into a hardened killer with no warning.
“Game 6” was shot, recognizably, in Manhattan, on grainy film, in often rough handheld. Eschewing this attempt at imposing vigor, Cronenberg’s film is in antiseptic digital and characteristically minute in framing detail. The outside is recognizably not New York; in fact, it’s Toronto (often a studio at that). Ever the patriotic Canadian, Cronenberg includes veteran band Metric (which contributed the theme song to Pattinson’s “Twilight: Eclipse:) and Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan on the soundtrack. (Metric’s songs, along with longtime collaborator Howard Shore’s score, crackles like Trent Reznor’s “The Social Network” score, an improvement on Yo La Tengo’s affectlessly gauzy soundtrack for “Game 6.”) Besides winking to his home, this multicultural stand-in for any global financial mecca gets a further disconnect from plastic-y digital lensing (the passing landscapes sometimes look like the live-action “Speed Racer”). Actual Times Square footage comes as a shock.
Hoffman’s film is rooted in a pre-9/11 cheer. “Cosmopolis” the novel was, ominously, set in April 2000, but this film is even more disconcertingly sometime in the present, a film about one man’s financial actions potentially destroying entire markets (a scenario broached for real by Chase’s recent problems with multi-billion trading losses). As apocalyptic and disconcerting as the violence can be (the bullets, when they come, are deafening), it’s more often unexpectedly funny than “Game 6″‘s straining.
Cronenberg’s total investment towards bringing DeLillo’s hivemind voices to life makes sense. The overlap with his work is extensive: not just the snap to violence, but the turning point of finding a gun in a mundane place (see also “eXiStenZ”), the Polanski-esque precision of the alternating two-shots (an improvement on the technical mastery wasted on the turgidly written “A Dangerous Method”), its mock-ominous presentation of cars as harbingers of death (cf. “Crash” and, much earlier, the drag-racing exploitation film “Fast Company”), the spiraling consequences of one person’s hubristic actions (“The Fly”), and so on.
If “Game 6” is smart people performing an adaptation task they fear is impossible, “Cosmopolis” is a perfect pairing of of director and author: Cronenberg streamlines DeLillo’s increasingly dominant magisterial streak, highlights the jokes better, and spirals through showboating dialogue to a state-of-the-international-economy finale —- an epic refashioning of “Game 6″‘s comparatively scrappy shaggy-dog midlife crisis story.