The Value of Nothing
David Cronenberg's skills as an adapter of existing stories (eight of his movies have originated in other works, says a back-of-the-envelope calculation, even without counting "The Fly") are seeming more robust than ever, as he moves away from body horror and dives deeper into the life of the mind. And it's appropriate that, after "A Dangerous Method" dramatized debates about human sexual drives in the form of two erudite talking heads, he should tackle Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis," in which a deeply disturbed young man wanders off the edge of sanity under his own steam, talking constantly while articulating hardly anything definable at all.
Of all Mr. Cronenberg's many psychonauts, excessively wealthy asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) may well be the least sympathetic and the hardest to read. But a lot of that comes courtesy of Mr. DeLillo. The book is a deliberately confounding wander into the neural pathways of Packer and his nemesis Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), full of overwrought literary diversions and sigils of impending disaster. Mr. Cronenberg transfers much of the mechanics directly, aware that Packer's multiple layers of armor — luxury limo to keep the outside world away; shades and sharp suits to keep his companions at arm's length; a brain full of barely comprehensible urges to avoid engaging with reality altogether — are at least as theatrical as they are literary. Deciding on a whim to trek across town for a haircut, Packer's odyssey allows him to peer at anarchy and social collapse through bulletproof glass, and long stretches of the running time do away with music and sound effects entirely, leaving characters free to discuss currency transactions and the metaphysics of wealth in splendid silent isolation.
Some of the director's excisions feel more costly than others: Packer's patronizing whim to purchase the Rothko Chapel and install it in his apartment survives, but the deeper points about how artistic creativity is beyond the young man's ken have gone. Cannily, Mr. Cronenberg nonetheless opens the film with a credit sequence designed around Jackson Pollock's drips and closes it with a calm sink into Mark Rothko's tar pits of muddy brown. Art and music seem to hang around the edges of the film, things Packer can gaze at but can't understand.
What's gone more drastically missing is the period. Published in 2003 and set in 2000, the novel is saturated with the dread of what happened in New York in between. The film shows Packer's frequent accidental meetings with his wife, but leaves out their final encounter: participating in a photo shoot of naked and apparently dead bodies on the streets of Manhattan à la Spencer Tunick, an image that would have made the connections impossible to overlook. Mr. DeLillo turned Packer's need to ruin himself financially into a wayward gesture of reclaimed power after some colossal nameless affront, whereas in Mr. Cronenberg's world, the serious threats come from within rather than without. The film's timeless version of Packer carries all the seeds of his own destruction between his ears. Mr. Cronenberg's gift for coolly burrowing into characters with this condition remains impeccable, low gore quotient or not.