After a decade-long run of accomplished and exciting films, David Cronenberg suffers an excruciating blow-out with his stilted, stuttering adaptation of Don DeLillo’s short novel Cosmopolis, the story of a twenty-something billionaire taking a limousine ride across Manhattan. Inert, stage-bound and self-conscious, Cronenberg’s journey is not worth the destination.

Twilight star Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer who has accumulated vast wealth by speculating on the international currency exchanges and all before his thirtieth birthday. Self made and “raised by wolves”, Packer has built up his massively-resourced corporation to be a globe-spanning money-machine. Isolated by his fortune, he has taken to sitting in a black leather throne in his stretch limo, surrounded by the latest information technologies and cocooned behind an inch of bullet-proof glass. From this impressive perch, Packer and his young, tech-savvy cohorts practise rarefied business strategies that allow them to predict currency fluctuations based on vast amounts of data collected from any and all available sources.

As the film opens, Packer has decided on a whim to travel across Manhattan to get a haircut from his childhood barber. His bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand), one finger constantly pressed to his earpiece, warns him about the complications presented by a presidential motorcade, an anti-capitalist protest and what he refers to as a “credible threat” against Packer’s life. To make things worse, the tycoon has made a huge bet against the Chinese Yuan and his constantly updating computer screen isn’t delivering him any good news.

Ignoring all advice, Packer gets into the car and makes his meandering way across the city, like Leopold Bloom in a very expensive suit. From time to time, people in his life arrive at the car to have hollow, didactic conversations about nothing in particular. His snooty wife (Sarah Gadon) tells him she’d rather write poetry than consummate their marriage. His art-dealer (Juliette Binoche) tells him about a fabulously expensive Rothko painting that has just come on the market, while his financial guru (Samantha Morton) delivers an incomprehensible lecture about “the narrative quality of money”. His doctor arrives and, in the film’s sole attempt at humour, gives the billionaire a prostate examination as his head of computer security watches, aghast. Meanwhile, Packer’s car gets caught up in the simmering anti-capitalist protests on the city streets, which will eventually spill over into a tepid, tired-looking riot.
In Pattinson’s hands, the po-faced, frozen financier is really not a character you’d want to spend an hour and a half trapped in a car with, regardless of how plush the upholstery. Blandly handsome and wearily dull, the actor doesn’t help matters by being as wooden as a garden fence, delivering his convoluted dialogue in a tuneless monotone, complete with long sighs and pouted sneers. Like the film itself, there is nothing going on under the surface. The late arrival of Paul Giamatti as a half-crazed would-be assassin ups the ante on the non-stop chatter as Pattinson’s quest devolves into a twenty-minute snippet from a one-act play. The two characters bounce around an overdressed set, yapping interminably about inequality and injustice. Or at least, I think that’s what they’re talking about. By this point, Cronenberg’s dialogue has collapsed into a tedious, airless jumble of barely-connected words that escape coherence or meaning.

Adapting DeLillo’s 2003 novel himself (his first screenplay credit since 1999s Existenz) Cronenberg’s script comes off as an over-considered lecture on the amoral excesses of corporate America. Among all the jargon and double-speak, there is no perceptible anger. The director stages a riot, in which a man sets himself on fire in the manner of a Buddhist monk, and the scene has all the energy and impact of a sputtering candle on a birthday cake. Intended as a denunciation of the elite one per cent, this vapid, strained drama offers nothing but shiny emptiness.

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