There’s an increasingly sharp divide between 20th-century David Cronenberg and 21st-century David Cronenberg. In his 20th-century heyday, Cronenberg was mostly known for horror films with grotesque makeup effects, such as The Fly (1986), Scanners, and Videodrome. And to a large degree, those films still make up the bulk of his reputation among filmgoers. But they bear very little resemblance to his 21st-century work.
It’s hard to believe that the same guy was responsible for films like A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method, and Cosmopolis. Cronenberg has always had a flair for making intelligent cinema, but his more recent works have been decidedly void of special effects, bodily horror, or sci-fi allegory. Yet these films (Cosmopolis in particular) seem to take place in a world that’s only slightly heightened from our own reality, off-putting in just such a way that we’re implicitly led to keep our guard up by keeping our brains turned on.
Maps to the Stars is more of the same, in that it’s a movie playing by its own bizarre set of rules. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the rules and logic resemble that of our own real world at first. But as the characters continue to weave their way through the plot and the symbolism goes ever deeper, there comes a point when you have to stop and wonder just how the fuck we got to this point. And then someone bursts into flames for no reason. I’ll try to elaborate.
The “plot” is made of several interconnected storylines taking place all throughout Los Angeles. After all, this is Hollywood, such a small world that everything there is interconnected somehow.
Our de facto anchor is the Weiss family, specifically actor Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). He’s a 13-year-old child actor who just wrapped up a long stint in rehab for drug addiction (you heard me) after starring in a worldwide smash hit film. And now, to get his career back on straight, he’s signing on to make a sequel.
Then there’s Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams), Benjie’s mother and also his manager. His father is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-proclaimed “doctor” practicing some massage/therapy/spiritualist bullshit that somehow got him a very impressive client list of wealthy celebrities. He’s even published several books on his mumbo-jumbo, with a promotional tour for one of them coming up soon.
One of Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand, played by Julianne Moore. Perhaps not coincidentally, Havana and Benjie also share agents (Genie, played by Dawn Greenhalgh). Anyway, Havana is a stinking hot mess with absolutely nothing going for her except for a famous mother. In fact, the late Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for an older film currently getting remade — sorry, “reimagined” — and Havana is doing everything possible to win her mother’s old role. The problem, of course, is that Havana is a great big bundle of egomania, mommy issues, and so many other neuroses that she can barely take care of herself, much less act for a camera.
Last but not least is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who’s probably the closest thing we have to a protagonist in this picture. We first meet Agatha when she’s fresh off a bus ride from Florida, and she eventually finds employment as Havana’s personal assistant. Incidentally, that arrangement came from mutual acquaintance Carrie Fisher, who cameos in this movie, I shit you not. It also bears mentioning that Agatha has mysterious burn marks on her face, she’s in LA for mysterious undisclosed reasons, and she’s being shown around by love interest/limo driver/aspiring actor/writer Jerome (Robert Pattinson).
It of course goes without saying that satire of Hollywood and showbiz is the order of the day. Accordingly, the film gets in a few jabs about the rebooting/remaking trend, juvenile and lazy comedies made for the lowest common denominator, celebrity media. etc. There’s even a brief moment about obsessive fans that seems to share an overlap with Antiviral, a celebrity-based film from the younger Cronenberg.
But by and large, the film appears to be much more focused on what celebrity culture does to the celebrities themselves. A great example is Benjie, who got exposed to way too much money and fame at way too young, to say nothing of the damage his domineering mother is doing to his psyche. The character brilliantly showcases the harm that comes with showbiz getting younger; Benjie is thirteen and he already has to deal with career burnout and ennui, to say nothing of actors who are even younger and already gunning for his job.
As an added bonus, Benjie gets to be the one who examines the impact that fans have on celebrities. This comes by way of Cammy (Kiara Glasco), a young girl who dies shortly after a charity hospital visit from Benjie. The death appears to have a strong impact on the child star, for reasons he can’t quite explain (drug withdrawals, perhaps?), because he’s haunted by her ghost throughout the picture.
Speaking of hauntings, there’s the matter of Havana. She had to grow up in the shadow of a gorgeous and talented actress who may also have been an abusive mother. This psychological damage is illustrated by Havana’s frequent hallucinations of her mother, back when Clarice was young and in her prime.
With all of this psychosis and stress going on, it’s little wonder that entertainers will go to great lengths in pursuing even the most desperate means of relief (at one point, a character even thinks about converting to Scientology purely as a career move). Thus we have Stafford Weiss, getting rich off suckers buying his brand of snake oil. Yet that doesn’t make him immune from the old Hollywood fate of having to live his own lie. He has his own sins and scandals, just like anyone else, and he’s desperate to keep those skeletons locked away in the closet. Purely for the book tour, you understand.
Yes, we may as well get to all the sinning and scandaling that goes on in this picture. The movie thoroughly earns its R rating, and I have no doubt that Cronenberg would have gone for an NC-17 if he thought he could get away with it. There’s sex, violence, drugs, and swearing galore in this picture, all to absurd degrees. A teenager calls a grown man a cunt. Someone shoots a dog. There’s a three-way sex scene. There’s a long, drawn-out death by strangling.
And the incest! Not that it happens on camera (at least, not in graphic detail), but incest is a huge plot point in this movie. Granted, it fits in with the greater themes about childhood trauma and scandals waiting to come out, but god damn. The filmmakers seemed to take a perverted kind of delight in finding the next social/showbiz taboo to blow up. I suppose that makes it a bit easier when we’re expected to believe all the plot-convenient bouts of crazy from our characters, however.
As for miscellaneous notes, the cast is astounding across the board. Evan Bird may be a relative newcomer, but he proves himself an undisputed star a dozen times over. Likewise, Mia Wasikowska proves yet again why she deserves more recognition as one of this generation’s biggest up-and-comers. Olivia Williams is underutilized, I’m sorry to say, but her very presence is enough to elevate her role into something memorable. Robert Pattinson also gets limited screen time, so he doesn’t get much of a chance to disprove any of his remaining haters, but at least he doesn’t wear out his welcome. Julianne Moore turns in a performance that — in my opinion, anyway — is far more interesting and heartbreaking than the one she recently won an Oscar for. As for John Cusack, I can only say that we need to see him play neurotic bluster tinged with homicidal mania more often.
Finally, on the subject of the cast, there’s the matter of Sarah Gadon. This actress has more than proven herself, playing a variety of roles for both Cronenbergs with a long list of situations that most other actresses in Hollywood probably would have walked away from. After everything she’s done onscreen for these auteurs and everything she’s proven to be capable of, she deserves far better from Hollywood than fucking Dracula Untold or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Just saying.
I have a very difficult time applying labels like “good” or “bad” to movies like Maps to the Stars. It’s a weird little movie, content to act on its own weird little terms, set on making an intelligent point in weird little ways that are all but guaranteed to polarize viewers. It’s a film that goes for a ton of shock value, but at least it’s shock value that’s solidly crafted and delivered with brains. The film has an amazing cast and confident direction from David Cronenberg, though some audiences may be wondering why the filmmakers were so intent on making that particular point in that particular way and why there couldn’t have been another option.
I’ll say for a certainty that it’s a very interesting film. To go a step further, it’s an intriguing look at show business, the kind of people who would go into show business, and what show business does to those people. So if anyone out there has a cast-iron stomach with an appetite for pitch-black Hollywood satire, here’s your movie.