Sleek and forbidding, David Cronenberg's adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel "Cosmopolis" presents the most whopping paradox in the cinema year 2012.
It is a picture, like any picture made by a true craftsman, that improves considerably on a second viewing. In its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May it struck me as "stylish but inert." I'd flop those adjectives now; by a whisker, the witty, ominous allure of the images compensates, at the film's best, for a script hellbent on fidelity to the DeLillo prose and dialogue — dialogue that Robert Pattinson, especially, has a hard time digesting.
The "Twilight" star's character here, the "foully, berserkly rich" Wall Street financier Eric Packer, seeks a haircut. He is newly married to a poetess (Sarah Gadon) who is nearly his monetary equal, but the marriage does not impede on his sense of sexual entitlement. As the narrative of "Cosmopolis" crawls, stealthily, through horrible midtown traffic (the president's in town) and an escalating anti-capitalist riot in the streets, Packer meets with a series of business associates, as well as his doctor, who performs a daily checkup on this wonder of business, the man with "6 percent body fat" but no discernible soul.
The film is laid out like a series of playlets, mostly confined to the outlandishly luxurious white limo. Juliette Binoche, first seen in coitus with her client, pops in as an art dealer with news of Rothko Chapel's contents (Packer wants to buy the chapel as well as the art). Jay Baruchel, as a tech and security wizard, twitches and wonders if all this "booming and soaring" in the economy is destined for a fall.
By the time Packer reaches his destination, he has puzzled over his asymmetrical prostate, been hit with a cream pie by a voluble protester (Mathieu Amalric, in an amusingly staged sequence), and confronted his most pressing accuser (Paul Giamatti). DeLillo's novel was published in 2003. Its depiction of a global economy on the verge of a nervous breakdown is only more pertinent nine years later.
I just wish Cronenberg hadn't adapted the book on his own. Behind the camera, he does remarkable things, turning Packer's limo into what Cronenberg himself has described as an upscale version of "Das Boot." But the playlets constituting the whole are thick, stubbornly undramatic affairs; the verbiage is lumpy, self-conscious (as when the chief bodyguard refers to traffic "that speaks in quarter inches"). Pattinson tries, but he doesn't yet have either the ear or the voice for this sort of densely verbal and daunting material.
So "Cosmopolis" wages war with itself. And for some, the way Cronenberg and his designers and cinematographer have solved the riddle of how to keep the enormous, seemingly shape-shifting limo a viable, activated universe for one cipher's gradual meltdown ... well, it'll be reason enough to tackle the film.
'Cosmopolis' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language)
Running time: 1:48