Dostoyevsky famously said all Russian literature emerged from under Gogol’s “Overcoat.” Most of Don DeLillo’s fiction seems delivered from a dingy basement room rented by Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. In fact, DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, now faithfully adapted to the screen by David Cronenberg, features two undergroundlings of the spirit. One of them is deceptively wealthy and smugly at ease, a seeming master of the universe: Eric Packer, a twenty-eight-year-old asset manager who, on an April day in 2000, decides to cross Manhattan in his stretch limousine to get a haircut in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of his youth. During this trek, which turns into a crawl because of a presidential visit to the city, the young billionaire keeps looking at a computer screen to check on the progress of his risky bet that the yuan will plunge in value. It doesn’t.
The limo, an office/apartment on wheels, contains innumerable gadgets, a bar, and equipment for Eric’s daily medical exam. Along the way he picks up his firm’s head of technology, his wife of the last twenty-two days, his doctor, his chief of finance, his mistress (doubling as his art dealer), and his court philosopher, who expounds the metaphysics of global capitalism.
The limo floats through a Boschian cityscape. Anti–Wall Street protestors are rioting, flinging dead rats around in restaurants; death threats have been issued against both the president and Packer; the head of the IMF is assassinated during a live telecast from North Korea; and the death of a Sufi rap star, who seems to be the only person on earth Eric admires, ignites a pageant of mourning that makes the traffic jam even worse. Inside the car, Eric needles his staff, has sex with his mistress, chit-chats with his wife (whom he’s hardly seen since the wedding), and undergoes a prostate exam in the presence of his female finance officer. I did say this was a David Cronenberg movie, didn’t I?
Like the protagonist of Notes from Underground, Eric possesses a mind that is devouring itself, but with this difference: Dostoyevsky’s antihero feels too much, while Packer is desperately struggling to feel something, anything. Now, when a wealthy but emotionally exhausted movie hero tries to get in touch with his feelings (think of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman), it usually signals that he’s on the road to redemption. But Eric is so inwardly frozen that only by doing something drastic can he jar himself into full consciousness. Horrors wait for him to commit them.
If Packer’s soul is in deep freeze, DeLillo presents us with another underground man on fire: Benno Levin, an employee of Packer Enterprise fired without notice or severance pay, now eking out a rodent-like existence in a condemned building. Levin turns out to be the person who sent Packer the death threat—a seemingly futile act since he has no way of penetrating Packer’s praetorian guard. Yet Packer’s odyssey is serendipitously taking him from the fortress of his penthouse triplex to Levin’s wretched pad. In a more realistic story this would be nonsense, but Cosmopolis is a fever dream, and no one can escape doom in a nightmare.
In the book DeLillo lets Levin spew out his resentments in diary excerpts that interrupt the third-person narrative of Packer’s car trip. These excerpts have been written after Packer’s final encounter with his former employee, so we are forced to regard that meeting as a foregone conclusion. In the movie version of the story, Cronenberg has jettisoned the diary and kept Benno off-screen until the climax. So instead of the novel’s retrospective sense of fate, we get a less predictable showdown that satisfies a movie audience’s craving for surprise and suspense without cheapening the story. The change also permits a unity of place and viewpoint: we are with Packer the whole time, and Packer is almost always in his limo. This little narrative adjustment finally pays off when Packer tells his driver to retire the car to its garage. After the slow, steady movement of the vehicle, we sense catastrophe when the asset manager finds himself alone and on foot in a dark and apparently deserted neighborhood. Without the bulletproof windshield, tinted windows, plush sound-muting interior, and bodyguards riding shotgun, a breath of urban air suddenly becomes the panting of the Eumenides.
Production designer Arvinder Grewal and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky capture the flat brilliance of plastic, chrome, asphalt, and steel under spring sunlight, making Eric’s limo world appear as both a protective cocoon and a self-imposed cage. Cronenberg’s compositions distill the meaning of each encounter without glibly summing them up. At one point during the climactic face-off, Benno launches into a tirade against his former boss, who appears oddly fascinated. It’s only a split second before the director cuts away from this shot that we notice he’s framed his actors in a way that suggests a confessional box, and only then do we realize we’ve just heard a confession disguised as a denunciation.
A warning: The casting in this movie is so good that if you tackle the book after seeing the movie, you’ll lose the pleasure of imagining the characters for yourself. No matter that Juliette Binoche as the mistress isn’t the “scorched blonde” DeLillo describes; she sufficiently scorches the screen with bitter sensuality. The rest of the cast also takes naturally to the mephitic air of the novel. And in the long final scene, Paul Giamatti as Benno Levin unforgettably sums up and releases the rage that’s been simmering for two hours under the story’s gelid surface.
As Eric, Robert Pattinson has no trouble conveying a creepy cool but doesn’t quite transmit the underlying monstrousness. Cosmopolis is, after all, about the innate combustibility of capitalism, and Eric Packer himself is going down in flames. To communicate violence masked by impassivity is a tall order for any actor. The master cobra of movie stars is Christopher Walken, and when I first saw Pattinson in Twilight he struck me as a hollowed-out Walken. The resemblance is even more pronounced in Cosmopolis now that Pattinson has taken on Walken’s tendency to hesitate on key words before popping them out with extra force. But Pattinson does show real talent here. He convinces us of his character’s intelligence, his attractiveness to the women in his orbit, and his awareness of the doom awaiting him. Still, this Armani-attired Caligula needs something extra. Pattinson gives us ice; the young Christopher Walken would have reminded us that ice can burn.