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By Philip Martin

This article was published August 31, 2012 at 4:35 a.m.

— Cosmopolis

89 Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, Mathieu Amalric, Emily Hampshire Director: David Cronenberg Rated: R, for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language Running time: 109 minutes

Literary novels do not often fare well when transposed to the big screen — when I read Don DeLillo’s slim novel Cosmopolis in 2003, I never imagined it might end up a movie. Not because there was anything inherently unfilmable about the book, but because to me the chief attraction was not the narrative — not the story of the 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer (a well-cast Robert Pattinson) riding his limo 11 blocks across midtown Manhattan along 47th Street to get a haircut on one of the most inconvenient travel days of the year — but DeLillo’s insistent, gleaming prose that occasionally gave way to stunted dialogue, parodic of Master of the Universe posturing.

In short, I didn’t think anyone would bother. It’s minor DeLillo (which means it’s substantial and stylized), with limited commercial appeal. While the novel now seems, like so much of DeLillo’s work, eerily prescient (though it was set in 2000, it envisioned an Occupy-style riot against the 1 percent), I doubt more than 100,000 people in this country actually read it, and that most of those who did were academics, journalists or other professional readers, some of whom (like The New York Times Michiko Kakutani) dismissed it as a “major dud.”

But David Cronenberg, our most consistently fascinating director, has managed to make a compelling horror film from the book while retaining much of DeLillo’s hilariously stilted dialogue.

Samantha Morton appears midway through as Packer’s “chief of theory” to deliver deadpan lines on the order of: “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself,” and “time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free-market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent.”

These words mean things, they express — in the context of the book and — somehow, against all intuition — even in the film, some lively ideals. What happens to our ability to predict the future when the past — when experience — evaporates? What happens when numbers matter in and of themselves, when they cease to denote anything more than scoreboard figures, “when money is talking to itself?”

When his art dealer (a marvelous Juliette Binoche, having fun) urges him to buy a Rothko that has suddenly become available, Packer decides he wants to buy Houston’s Rothko Chapel.

“It belongs to the world,” she tells him.

“It’s mine if I buy it,” he says. He has a shark tank in his $104 million apartment and the money to obliterate the world. He spent $31 million on a surplus Russian bomber that the State Department won’t let him fly armed. It now resides in Arizona, waiting for “a part no one can find.” Sometimes Packer flies out to visit it, to look at it.

“Because it’s mine,” he says.

Most of the talking in the film takes place in the back of Packer’s long white stretch limousine (not quite soundproofed by cork lining). He receives a stream of visitors in the crawling car, and he occasionally ventures out. He’s losing all his money — on principle if not exactly on purpose — in a grand monetary bet, and tracking it on various screens.

Infused with what might be called Cronenbergian dread, with a strong undercurrent of surreal comedy, Cosmopolis is a movie about a sentient zombie, trapped in a womblike limousine while outside the dead souls of Manhattan roil, spraying paint on his windows and hurling rats. Everything he wants is posthumous.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 08/31/2012

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