Published in 2003, American writer Don DeLillo’s philosophic diatribe on the randomness of contemporary American culture showcases a society on the brink of paranoia, valueless violence and dysfunctional oligarchs, Cosmopolis was originally praised by literary critics as a prediction of a truly unpredictable urbanized consumer society which thrives on wealth and more inherently lack of wisdom. Naturally the book is set in Manhattan, New York, the site of the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the heart of Wall Street, where corporate greed has run riot, a metropolitan pantheon of the perverse.
Cosmopolis focus on the young, vain, egotistical and hypochondriac billionaire Eric Packer who trades in all the world’s fluctuating currencies from the comfort of his sleek, multifaceted stretch limousine. A vehicle, where he can have sex with his financial advisor, have his prostate examined while predicting the currencies in Asia, pour a vodka and unemotionally view the thronging masses rhythmically rioting on the Manhattan streets as they protest job losses, raising inflation and an impending economic meltdown. DeLillo’s post 9/11 novel, almost predicted with certainty the 2008 financial crisis of Wall Street rupturing the entire American Capitalist system as the collapse of the subprime mortgage lending schemes which crippled international banks and caused contagious economic havoc.
Enter Canadian director David Cronenberg (The Naked Lunch, A History of Violence), whose claustrophobic film version of Cosmopolis starring Twilight’s Robert Pattinson as the deadpan, psychotic bored billionaire Eric Packer along with a host of briefly seen international stars from Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), Matthieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and Samantha Morton (The Libertine) who are all captured in a series of sporadic dialogues with Packer which ultimately serve no purpose whatsoever emphasizing DeLillo’s dissatisfaction with contemporary discourse and the apparent random rhetoric attributed to contemporary language, making for a quirky and unintelligible script, purposefully devoid of significance.
Whilst as a novel, DeLillo crisply conveys the descent into chaos and violence that Packer’s journey across downtown Manhattan will lead to, all in the search of a haircut, the novel’s perilous message is lost on the big screen. Cronenberg’s Cosmospolis does not convey many exterior shots of New York but like the novel confines the action mostly to the limousine and the diner, inherent symbols of American excess and corporate convenience: a dystrophic society ready to consume itself.
Cosmopolis is difficult to watch, almost uncomfortable from the random and bloody violence to the prospect of seeing Pattinson cooped up in a Limo for most of the film, and unlike Mary Hatton’s brilliant film adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis novel, American Psycho, does not make use of the Manhattan skyscraper iconography. Unlike American Psycho, Cosmopolis comes across onscreen as a pretentious film without much substance, but then that is conveyed more accessibly in DeLillo’s slim and scathing prosaic prediction of an American society consumed by greed, vengeance and mistrust.
Best part of Cosmopolis is the final scene between Robert Pattinson and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, The Hangover Part II) who adds an uncharacteristic level of deviousness to an otherwise thinly plotted but ultimately vacuous narrative.
Audiences should not expect stunning visuals or any cathartic release, after all this is pure Art House Cinema Cronenberg returning to eccentric cinematic form and not intent on delivering a more substantial mainstream thriller like his brilliant Russian gangster film Eastern Promises.