Maps to the Stars (Movie Review)
There is skewering Hollywood and then there is squeezing it by the neck, disemboweling it with a straight razor and gathering ‘round to watch ants engulf the giblets as the host writhes in pain on the Walk of Fame. I’m often quite suspicious of cynicism, but here, screenwriter Bruce Wagner assimilates it so totally that it rises beyond simplistic pessimism and alchemizes into a toxic, forlorn ecstasy. It left me shaking in my seat with delight.
Maps to the Stars is as good a film as any David Cronenberg has ever made, and yet it is also unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him. Gone is the glacial introspection of Dead Ringers, Spider, and Cosmopolis, replaced here by a joyful indulgence of madness that doesn’t lose a fraction of the intelligence we’ve come to admire in the director. The film finds him taking well-trodden subject matter, the specter of the Hollywood machine, and presenting it as a nasty, bracingly clear peephole into the insecurities and neuroses that the film industry effortlessly facilitates. Where a director like David Lynch would have injected a great deal of romanticism to soften the swallow, Cronenberg ingests the world he paints with the totality of a boa constrictor: bones and all.
As the film begins, the camera slithers through the aisle of an L.A. bound bus and lands on Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a former child star who becomes the connective tissue of the narrative.When she hops off the bus, she immediately befriends Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limousine driver with ambitions to — stop me if you’ve heard this one — act and write, specifically to star in the script he’s writing. Agatha tells him she’s in town visiting family, but to what end? She is the lost child of the Weiss family, one of Hollywood’s dynasties, composed of nearly every Tinsel Town archetype you can imagine; Stafford (John Cusack), a world-renowned self-help guru who flirts with Chopra-esque mysticism; Benjie (Evan Bird) a teen heartthrob who, beneath the squeaky-clean veneer of calculated fame, is a recovering drug addict who appears to make a passionate hobby out of being aggressively insufferable towards everyone he meets; and Christina (Olivia Williams), the mother who “nurtures” her baby boy into impenetrable misanthropy. They have all excommunicated her from their lives after a disastrous incident many years ago, although I’m careful not to reveal what it is.
Nevertheless, Agatha is led back to them after quickly securing employment as assistant to movie star Havana Segrand. Havana, played brilliantly by Julianne Moore, is as pathetic as washed-up actresses come, and it’s not entirely her fault. She attends regular sessions with Dr. Weiss to come to terms with emotional and physical abuse performed by her now deceased mother, also an actress. Havana’s dream project is to play her mother in a long-gestating remake of one of her classic films, Stolen Waters. It is unclear wether this is an attempt at catharsis or a deeper plunge into the seedy recesses of her psychosis. I’m betting on a bit of both.
In classic Cronenberg fashion, the repressed troubles of all of these people soon occupy reality. Early in the film, Benjie visits a dying fan in the hospital and, after being fed false information by his agent, mistakenly assumes she has AIDS. Soon, visions of the girl begin to haunt his life, reminding him periodically of his deepest flaws. Is she a ghost, or is Benjie simply crazy, just like his older sister? She too had the visions, but what does that mean, exactly? Is it some variety of family curse, or is it more deeply rooted than that? And how does this relate to Havana? She too begins to receive visits from an otherworldly presence, her mother’s youthful figure appearing every so often to remind her of her failures as an actress and as a person. Is she a ghost too? In the end, I’m not certain it matters.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Bruce Wagner’s script is boiling over with a wealth of rich material to draw from, spreading its thorny tendrils in all directions, and Cronenberg balances it all with the tact and gentle dexterity of a master. He has progressed through low-budget horror to prestige pictures featuring the finest actors in the world. The shackles of the industry have dissolved from his wrists. He has done everything, and he is now capable of anything. Never has a film so full seemed so lean, with all of its multicolored ducks aligned with near-mathematical precision. He, like the great Clint Eastwood, is incapable of human judgement. His characters are hateful, spiteful, and ultimately tragic, and yet his dramatic treatment comes not from a place of hate but of pity. He sees at the center of all of them an immediately recognizable thirst. After all, their attitudes are born out of a dream had by everyone on Earth at least once — to cement one’s place in the stars.
In the past, the Cronenberg films that alienate audiences the most have always been the ones to immediately strike me. A Dangerous Method was met with yawns and indifference, with some arguing it was the director’s least distinctive effort to date. I found it fascinating throughout. Cosmopolis managed to leave so many people stone cold that it is most notable by its complete non-impact. I thought it was one of the most adventurous pieces of filmmaking I had ever seen. I can’t say where Maps to the Stars will fall in this schematic, but know this: if nobody else is in love with this movie, I am. Yes, it is acerbic to the nth degree, but I am incapable of dismissing a movie of such craft, truth, and painful sincerity. “Sincerity” may seem an odd word to describe a satire, but as Bruce Wagner stated in an interview, Maps to the Stars is not a satire. It is a descent into a kind of spiritual unrest only Hollywood can produce, a paranoia that you’re being used and forgotten almost as quickly as you’re using and forgetting everybody else. In this industry, there are no saints.
If it makes any statement about Hollywood itself, it is precisely that. Yes, there is a running theme of incest, and that speaks volumes about the nature of industry success, but the film uses this to cut more deeply than that. The characters in this film seem at once precious and instantly disposable to one another. One moment, they nurture each other through their anxieties. The next moment, they toss each other into the proverbial garbage disposal without thinking twice about flicking the “on” switch. There is a fleeting relationship in the film between Agatha and Jerome the Limousine driver. What exactly are they to each other? At first, Jerome seems trepidatious — Agatha is, as he says, “a little crazy” — and yet he continues to lead her on. Why? In one very telling scene, Jerome is hired to give Havana a ride home. She asks him if he dates Agatha simply because it’s good research. Everything, he quips, is research in a way. Indeed.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer, script supervisor, and motion picture researcher residing in Los Angeles, California. His experience ranges from reviewing movies to providing creative guidance to fledgling film projects. You can reach him at: www.spencermoleda.com