David Cronenberg is considered by many to be one of the best visionary directors in Hollywood. Yet, until now, he had never made a film in the States. That has changed with the release of Maps to the Stars, which goes right into the heart of the industry of which he is a part, delving deep into the sick and twisted world of showbiz.
The story begins with a burn-scarred girl (played by Mia Wasikowska) arriving in Hollywood, ostensibly in the hope of meeting a few celebrities. Meanwhile, a fading actress (Julianne Moore) is determined to land a role her mother made famous decades before and an obnoxious teen star (Evan Bird) is about to begin shooting a sequel to the smash-hit, authentically terrible-sounding Bad Babysitter. But while these stories seem mostly about individual characters, the connections between them demonstrate a monstrous character study wherein Tinseltown is just a façade for the real human ugliness just beneath the service.
Cronenberg expertly weaves these seemingly disassociated stories Magnolia-style in order to create a satirical portrait that goes beyond satires such as Sunset Boulevard and The Player, though a P. T. Anderson shout-out and a cameo from Carrie Fisher don’t hurt the comparisons. Those films are tame, however, in comparison to Maps to the Stars, which not only exposes the extremities of celebrity lifestyle, but even elaborates the consequences of family secrets.
Certainly, Cronenberg’s horror-style seems a bit out of place at times. There’s one example of shocking body horror, which reminds us this is from the director of Videodrome and Scanners. But the shock elements work because of the characters he is presenting, each a desperate and degenerate work of humanity.
Firstly, there’s the Weiss family, who are an embodiment of the celebrity lifestyle, with a father, deadpan, black-spectacled Stafford (John Cusack), who writes fatuous, self-help books, and fragile, nervy mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), whose main job is to milk her son’s popularity, and finally, their son, the aforementioned teen star Benjie; foul-mouthed, arrogant, and barely rehabilitated. Bird gives a superb performance, channeling every notable teen sensation to portray a despicable, old-beyond-his-years brat who knows no better.
Other notable characters include the washed-up Havana Segrand, constantly haunted by her mother’s success; Agatha, the mysterious girl in a new town; and Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an indolent limo driver with aspirations of being an actor/writer. The cast list reads like a roll call by Thomas Pynchon.
While Cronenberg draws out strong performances from all involved, it is Julianne Moore who stands out the most, delivering a performance to rival Gloria Swanson’s iconic diva, Norma Desmond. As Havana, Moore portrays an actress suffering from serious mummy issues, who is close to a mental breakdown. Her reactions to seeing her dead mother’s (Sarah Gadon) ghost are genuine as they are shocking. A role which includes an explicit threesome and joyous singing after discovering a rival actress has suffered a great tragedy; Moore is relentless and believable, dancing along the edge but never falling into a caricature of the Hollywood diva.
Bruce Wagner’s screenplay certainly ticks all the boxes in regards to celebrity lifestyle, but at times has characters that are overly stereotyped; the typical drug addicted teens talking about sex is just one example. It takes the expertise of a veteran such as Cronenberg to ground the material, which – amidst a raft of ghosts and hallucinations – gives the stereotypes room to breathe, drawing out their depths from this toxic environment.
Cronenberg’s film are not for everyone, and while many will have their issues with Maps to the Stars, the film is not afraid to delve in the cruellest tragicomedy in this lacerating take on wealth and fame. It isn’t just a film about Hollywood, but about the consequences of the past. Twisted themes, along with a strong ensemble cast, make Maps to the Stars one of Cronenberg’s most accomplished works; not a perfect film, but, nevertheless, a profane and often scatological triumph.