David Cronenberg's best films are unbalancing experiences that give us a combination of sleek surfaces, with startling eruptions of eroticism and violence that awaken us to the tumultuous inner cross-talk between mind and body. The trouble with Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg's faithful-to-a-fault adaptation from Don DeLillo's 2003 novel, is that it's more metaphor than meat. The chronicle of 28-year-old billionaire investor Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) travelling across Manhattan over the course of a day in the carapace of his stretch limo, reading the world's financial ebbs and flows on computer monitors, is multiply resonant, at least on a literary level.
He's the incarnation of the capitalist animal, hooked up to the worldwide grid of flowing money, responding to the appetites of his own body, but amputated from empathy or ordinary human relations. He's a modern version of the heroic semi-deity descending into the underworld, facing death to recognize his humanity. He's the man who has everything external and nothing inside. His journey, interrupted by protesters, parades and security threats, is to get a humble haircut, like Sampson, opening him up to human frailty.
He is not, however, anyone with a recognizable inner life – a kind of automaton. Ordinary words puzzle him: "Why is it called an airport?" he asks. He studies human behaviour for a clue on how to behave: "We're having a conversation," he reports, in mid-conversation.
Hyper-rational and emotionally stunted, he responds to his impulses as if they were missions: As the film starts, his impulses tell him to drive across Manhattan to get a haircut. His bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand) warns him that this is impractical: The presidential motorcade is blocking the streets. Another corridor is shut off for the funeral of a Sufi rapper named Brother Fez. Economic protesters, waving dead rats symbolizing units of currency, are roaming through the streets. And there's a "credible threat" of an individual targeting Packer himself.
All those impediments mean Packer has plenty of hours to use his car-office to deal with work and his versions of pleasure. All this makes the movie roll by like a series of Significant Encounters with his various minions, collaborators and partners, making this a chauffeured series of Socratic dialogue, a Pilgrims Progress for eggheads. The puzzling nature of sexual urges, the dizzying speed of technology, the sacrifice of the many for the good of the few, the corporatization of time, go by like so many microessays.
Pattinson, often shot from low angles, with his fine geometric head and pale face, delivers the gnomic lines (much of it verbatim from DeLillo's text) with an assured rhythm. The other actors play counterpoint: Jay Baruchel as a technology adviser; Juliette Binoche as an older lover, who has sex with him in the car, and advises him on buying a new Rothko painting; Samantha Morton as a dowdy, oracular chief of theory who confesses to mathematical illiteracy but assures him: "Something will happen soon." Humour is weird and dry, like something in a medical bottle. As a doctor examines his prostate, Packer talks dirty to his hot and sweaty financial adviser (Emily Hampshire), who has been dragged from her jog into the limo for a quick consultation.
Then there's the out-of-car characters: Sara Gadon as his beautiful, icily chaste poet wife, who he meets three times, bringing the marriage to an end; a security guard he has sex with while she wears her protective vest; Mathieu Amalric as a furious "pastry assassin" who throws pies at enemies and screams in incomprehensible broken English. None of these events quicken the movie's pulse. The dialogue, with its echoes of absurdist theatre (Pinter, Pirandello) is full of oracular portent.
Two areas, in particular, frustrate. One is the street scenes of protests. The protests are described as "street theatre" but, unfortunately, that's exactly what they look like: Actors running around on a set, carrying signs and puppets, in a way that feels the opposite of threatening social chaos. The theatricality extends to the climactic half-hour of the film in which Packer – seeking pain, mortal awareness, authenticity – chases down his stalker in a rundown building on the West Side. The stalker is a disgruntled and mentally unbalanced former employee who goes by the name Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti). He has become fixated on the necessity of eliminating Packer for a host of symbolic reasons. Giamatti, with his hang-dog schlumpiness, his exaggerated actor pauses, his emotional bursts, is obviously intended to provide the human dimension here – the anguish, the sorrow, the rage – but like Packer, he feels like another literary construct: He is the instrument to provide Packer, Hamlet-like, with the consummation so devoutly to be desired.
"Holes are interesting," Packer declares at one point, as he stares down into Levin's improvised privy.
"Interesting" in quotation marks, pretty much describes Cosmopolis, a carefully prepared freeze-dried entrée, sans jus, that fails to stir the appetite.