There comes a time in skilled directors get to do whatever the hell they want—and with a gilded budget to boot. Once again, David Cronenberg brings his brilliantly damning perspective of the human condition to the screen. But Maps to the Stars is more than a diagnosis of society’s “inherent evil”; it’s an oversized foam middle finger to the film industry.
The F-Hollywood movie is a genre all in its own. Robert Altman mastered it with his 1992 adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player, flaunting his grasp on the movie-making circus as well as its top talent. Literally everyone who was anyone in the late ‘80s to early ’90s was in this formally brilliant satire. In a less direct manner, David Lynch said F-you Hollywood (and a lot of other things) with Mulholland Drive. Lynch, like Cronenberg, has always been one to question the cleanliness of human nature. In any case, it is finally Cronenberg’s turn to gnaw.
There really are two Cronenbergs: the Cronenberg of The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, and Videodrome, and the Cronenberg of the star-studded art-house film (Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method, and A History of Violence). I certainly have my preference, but that isn’t important. What’s important is both Cronenbergs shake hands in Maps.
While I missed the necessary inventiveness of a Brood’s budget, one could argue that his new film wouldn’t work on a low budget. If you want to make a movie about Hollywood and the plague of celebrity, you kind of need to convince your audience that you know the biz inside and out. There’s something particularly haunting and poignant about a fistful of A-list actors coming together to make a movie that rolls incest, mental illness, phony spiritualism, class disparity, and American excess all into one feature. It’s not for the faint of heart, but then again, who would ever expect that from this director?
We are immediately introduced to a Hollywood power family. The father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a new age healer cum therapist to the stars. His wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), is a match-thin mother/manager to the couple’s insidiously bratty and drug-addicted child actor, Benjie, played almost too well by Evan Bird. Benjie has a face that belongs on The Andy Griffith Show and a moral compass that would sit well in a greyhound racing ring. In a movie that is brimming with disturbing content, Benjie is easily the most terrifying aspect, and he’s only 13.
By day, the family tends to their professions: Stafford treats aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) in an attempt to work out the kinks in her back and the specter of her mommy issues. She lives in the shadow of her late starlet mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who verbally abused Havana relentlessly before perishing in a freak fire accident. If that’s too much family trauma for you, don’t see this movie, because there is more.
Enter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a wild-eyed newcomer to Los Angeles obsessed with becoming an actress and making connections. She immediately finds camaraderie and romance with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a chauffeur, similarly down-and-out, who dreams of making it. Within no time, Agatha is working as a personal assistant to Havana and finding ways of penetrating the lives of everyone around her. What Jerome and Havana don’t know is the frightening weight of Agatha’s past, one that is ominously tangled with the Weiss family.
This is a film so dense and severe that you want to take a shower after seeing it, and after you do that, you may feel that a blood transfusion would be more effective. That being said, it’s not without humor. Watching a 13-year-old curse at his agent with more cynicism than Jack Nicholson on a bad day has its funny moments, but those go away by minute 35. This is a character- and story-driven film, with the sort of doomed mysticism of a Lars von Trier picture.
As for the characters, Cronenberg hit the nail on the head. Cusack is simultaneously stern, hypocritical, soulless, and noble. I’m pretty sure he is wearing eyeliner the whole time, and it works. Moore is perfectly despicable as Havana. All her whininess, self-indulgence, and desire to sabotage make it pretty impossible to sympathize with her, yet she is captivating if only for her defects. However, Wasikowska is the star of the show, lending a sweet fragility to a character condemned by society and her own family.
The deficiencies of Maps lie in the lesser acting quality of Gadon and Pattinson. To Pattinson’s credit, his role was played with more subtlety than any other I’ve seen from him, but it still seemed that he was trying too hard. Gadon is stunning to look at, but she delivers her lines with a bit too much forced eeriness.
All in all, this is a film worth watching, but only if you have a strong of stomach and don’t frighten too easily.