Tuesday, April 2, 2013


No movie director has as much control over what people see as prose writers have. The writer's universe is made of words; the reader only sees what's written. Adapt the writing into film, into images, and inevitably the viewer sees more than the original writer or the adapter intends. That's when people start asking questions. The writer's control is a slippery thing. Each reader can imagine Eric Packer, the protagonist of Don DeLillo's novel, looking a particular way, since DeLillo isn't too particular about describing him, but how you visualize Packer doesn't compel you to question what DeLillo tells you about him. Put Packer on film, however, and have Robert Pattinson play him, and some folks will begin to wonder. How is this guy so rich and powerful? What do the other characters in the story see in him? Watch him move through the envisioned rather than the written world, even in as controlled an environment as David Cronenberg crafts for him, and you question all kinds of things readers might not have questioned in the novel. Above all, you question the words themselves.

Cosmopolis should have been a perfect novel to make into a movie. The main idea -- Packer takes a long ride through Manhattan in his armored limo, constantly detoured due to riots, funerals, outbreaks of street art, and constantly stopping to pick up consultants, cronies, wife and girlfriends, just to get a haircut at a favorite old barber shop -- sounds like something that might have been thought up during the golden age of Hollywood. If someone at the studio had thought it up, it might have been a screwball masterpiece. Cosmopolis is comic at times, but not Hollywood funny by any means -- not the way you'd expect with its picaresque, day-from-hell plot. Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is more often unintentionally funny -- though you can't go wrong with a running gag about an asymmetrical prostate -- but the problem with it isn't that Cronenberg wasn't trying for belly laughs. The problem is that the writer-director is too faithful to his source.

"A specter is haunting the world!"

The Cosmopolis movie reminds me more than anything else of Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, the adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels. Both films fairly slavishly attempt to reproduce the cadences of dialogue composed for media other than cinema. It was a bad idea in Sin City because dialogue designed to occupy one panel of many on a page doesn't translate smoothly to the flow of frames on a screen. With Cosmopolis the problem for Cronenberg is that Don DeLillo doesn't write in the realist or pop-realist tradition. His characters often talk in aphoristic statements that read more like the author's exercises in style than imitations of conversation. He can get away with that because a prose writer is master of his universe the way few film directors can be. Read Cosmopolis and you go in understanding that you're reading for style and ideas, and you judge accordingly. Watch Cosmopolis and you see people talking to each other, and that creates an expectation of realism, or the movie equivalent, that Cronenberg doesn't do enough to fulfill or dispel. Some might complain that the movie is overly stylized, but to do justice to DeLillo, to make him not look like a writer who simply can't write normal dialogue, it probably had to be more stylized than it actually is. It was up to Cronenberg to create a cinematic universe for which DeLillo's dialogue would seem like the natural language, or to make his screenplay more naturalistic, adapting rather than simply illustrating DeLillo.

Visually, Cronenberg often succeeds in conveying Packer's privileged alienation and staging the crowd scenes surging around the limo. It's too bad that he couldn't stage one of the novel's most memorable episodes, a Spencer Tunick style mass nude photo shoot, but the limo gliding slowly through an anti-poverty riot, Packer and another passenger nattering away on some abstract subject without acknowledging the mayhem banging on the car windows, is one of the film's best scenes, striking the right note of deadpan absurdity. Too often, however, the dialogue sits like lead weights in the actors' mouths. Cronenberg did poor Pattinson no favors casting him as Packer. Few will find him credible as a captain of finance, and many will blame bad acting for the artificial feel of his dialogue. But when not just Pattinson but Paul Giamatti also, playing a disgruntled employee out to kill Packer, sound like they're simply reciting it's unfair to blame any actor for the screenplay's limitations. DeLillo's dialogue lives on the page because that's its environment; putting it in people's mouths requires a different kind of life that Cronenberg can't create. His Cosmopolis is an act of admirable ambition -- he had already adapted a graphic novel to most people's satisfaction -- and there shouldn't be as much shame in its failure as some reviewers wanted to inflict. At age 70, Cronenberg should still have enough of a career left to make use of the hard lessons learned here.