Eric Packer is 28 and a hedge-fund multibillionaire. He spends his days in a stretch limo, consulting geeks and gurus, undergoing medical checkups, and entertaining women.
Packer is the hero of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel which premiered at the just-ended Cannes Film Festival. In the title role is Robert Pattinson, the vampire from the “Twilight” series.
“It’s very easy to say that this character, Eric Packer, is a vampire or werewolf of Wall Street, but really that’s fairly superficial,” said Cronenberg when probed by reporters about parallels. “This is a real person with a history and a past, and the history and the past is not ’Twilight,’ it is ’Cosmopolis.’”
Pattinson likewise avoided making connections in a Cannes news conference. He described finance as “a world that doesn’t make any sense to anybody,” yet “seems to have absurd, disproportionate power.”
Author DeLillo, looking aloof among the film’s cast and crew, gave Cronenberg his approval.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with the script,” he said. “That’s why the film turned out so well.”
Actually, DeLillo had everything to do with the script. Cronenberg, who penned it in six days, lifts dialogue word for word from the book. And he breathes little life into it, producing a static, verbatim transposition of a terrific novel.
We see the young billionaire gliding through Manhattan in the back of his limo, the ride suggested (sometimes crudely) through rear shots. Dark and bushy-browed, he wants to get a haircut across town. When told the visiting president is causing congestion, he asks, “Just so I know, which president are we talking about?”
As the day goes by, he summons motley professionals inside the car. A 22-year-old geek in branded sneakers briefs him on the yuan. A doctor announces, during the daily rectal examination, that his prostate is asymmetrical. An art adviser (Juliette Binoche) suggests, after a quickie in the limo, that he buy a Rothko; Packer says it’s the Rothko Chapel in Houston he wants, installed in his New York apartment.
Glancing out the window at one point, Packer sees his icy blond wife of one week, a billionaire heiress, sitting in a cab. They have brief encounters in eateries where only he does any eating. Packer is dying to consummate the marriage; she’d rather go to the library.
The wealthy wunderkind soon faces the ire of anti-Wall-Street protesters, who fling dead rats at him and smear cream pie all over his face. He also engages in a long dialogue with a disturbed former employee (Paul Giamatti).
DeLillo’s book is clearly the source of that rich cast. Yet in the novel, Packer has more of a soul, as conveyed by the narration: “Poems made him conscious of his breathing,” reads the first page. “A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice.”
The movie strips out that narration, giving few glimpses of Packer’s spiritual stirrings. All we know is that one of his private elevators plays Erik Satie at a quarter of the speed. We are served pure dialogue, with no ambient noise or musical score adding atmosphere.
To prove how sealed off Packer truly is from the outside world, Cronenberg shows him inside the limo virtually all the time -- even when the novel places him outside. We never, for instance, see him in his lavish apartment. The movie is all the poorer for it, and all the less a movie.
Incredibly, Pattinson delivers the strongest performance. His blase expression works well, and he pulls off complicated limo scenes with Binoche and the doctor.
The heavier hitters in the cast are letdowns. Binoche would be great in her native French; her English sounds slightly phony. Mathieu Amalric (the lead actor in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is even phonier as the pie-throwing protester. And seasoned Giamatti looks out of place, his low-pitched, nasal voice unsuited to the part.
“Cosmopolis” joins “On the Road” (which also debuted at Cannes this year) as yet another fine novel mishandled on screen. Topicality and a “Twilight” megastar will lure moviegoers to it in droves. They’d be better off reading the novel.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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