FAITHFULLY ADAPTING a Don DeLillo novel to film is the same kind of challenge as adapting Shakespeare. The dialogue is beautiful, precise, and utterly unlike anything spoken by any human being alive: At the beginning of Cosmopolis, a security guard (Kevin Durand, at his most appealingly Christopher Walkenesque) tells his ridiculously wealthy employer, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), that he cannot cross New York City in his shiny white limo to get a haircut because the president is in town and "You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches." "Entire streets deleted from the map," he adds, in a picturesque sentence fragment.
Durand chews on DeLillo's language, rolls it around his mouth, seems surprised at the cadences and imagery. But Pattinson is simply in over his head. He looks like a dotcom billionaire—young, bored, impressed with himself—and he wears the expensive suit well, but just about every line defeats him.
An early exchange with another boy genius in the back of the high-tech limo overwhelms Pattinson. "There's a poem I read in which a rat becomes the unit of currency... yes," Pattinson says. "The rat closed lower today against the euro... yes. Major sell-off of pregnant Russian rats... yes. Stockpiling of dead rats called global health menace." There's supposed to be a wryness there, but Pattinson simply cannot get it across—it's like watching an uneasy intellect turning an idea upside down and around for a few seconds before draining it of its life and discarding it. He just can't manage.
That's a huge problem, because this whole movie is about Packer trying to get across town to get a haircut. Along the way, he eats, fucks, squanders the vast majority of his fortune in a futile battle against the yuan, and talks. A whole lot, he talks.
In the book, Packer symbolizes America at the dawn of the 21st century (the novel was published in 2003, but it's only become more honest in the last decade). Pattinson's tics symbolize nothing, except maybe a statement about the vapidity of celebrity. It's a shame, too, because David Cronenberg's screenplay gets the spirit of DeLillo's book—about 70 percent of the novel winds up on screen, which is a tremendous feat—and his direction creates a fascinating blend of artifice and intimacy the whole way through. But without Packer's intellect, wit, and drive at the center of it all, the whole movie is an interesting failure at best, and crashingly dull at worst.