Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson
Length: 111 min
Country: Canada, USA, Germany, France
Maps to the Stars, a fascinating new drama from the consistently excellent David Cronenberg, contains within its first few minutes a curt dismissal of maps to the stars. Bubbly Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) travels via limo through an eerily placid Los Angeles while chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson) advises her that buying one is a waste of time unless she wants to see where Ryan Seacrest used to live. Of course, there are plenty of people out there who would be willing to pay good money to see where Ryan Seacrest used to live, just like there are people out there who would knowingly purchase a young actor’s faeces, as one scene informs us. Such used products can be precious to the general public because their presence can provide the closest possible experience to genuine interaction with the closed off community of Hollywood. Agatha later briefly arouses confusion when she tells Jerome in the same scene that she comes from Jupiter. She quickly clarifies that she is referring to the town of Jupiter in Florida but she might as well come from another planet. The Tinseltown of Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner is a largely self-contained, highly interconnected, nepotistic society where new products are just recycled waste in the form of remakes and sequels. It is, both literally and figuratively, incestuous.
Agatha and Jerome are just two young faces in a larger tapestry of relations. Agatha’s brother Benjie, played by a pitch-perfect Evan Bird, is the obnoxious teen star of the blockbuster comedy Bad Babysitter. Exuding a dangerous amount of self-assurance for a boy of his age, this sheltered brat’s unwitty putdowns are soon revealed to be outward expressions of a knotted sense of insecurity, no doubt induced in part by Benjie’s controlling, ambitious mother Christina, played by a steely Olivia Williams. John Cusack is cast as the self-involved, pretentious TV psychologist, Dr. Stafford Weiss, husband to Christina and father to Agatha and Benjie. The news of his daughter’s unexpected return to the city sends him into a state of panic to keep hidden the family secrets she happens to know, revealing in his desperation a startlingly brutal side of himself.
Rarely are his films as overtly humorous as Maps to the Stars. The fact that this is possibly the best-acted film he’s ever directed has a lot to do with this – every performer seems to revel in the contradictions of their respective characters – but it’s also a side-effect of the film’s inherently surreal setting.
His celeb clients include the egocentric fading actress Havana Segrand, played by an astonishing Julianne Moore. The psychological hang-ups that drive Havana seem to be rooted in her relationship with her deceased mother, a Hollywood star who inadvertently secured her legendary status by dying young but not before allegedly sexually abusing her own daughter.
From his body-horror classics like Videodrome and The Fly to his divisive adaptations of controversial literature like Crash and Naked Lunch, many if not most of David Cronenberg’s films could perhaps be described as unsettlingly dark comedies. Rarely are his films as overtly humorous as Maps to the Stars. The fact that this is possibly the best-acted film he’s ever directed has a lot to do with this – every performer seems to revel in the contradictions of their respective characters – but it’s also a side-effect of the film’s inherently surreal setting. The script gives Cronenberg a whole new playground to apply his troubling sensibilities. Self-delusion and self-destruction once again run rampant. Human biology continues to provide a slowly decaying prison for the human psyche, with the body unable to fully adhere to the mind’s strange and paradoxical demands. Cronenberg has certainly dealt with these themes more profoundly before but he demonstrates their relevance to his socially involved but mentally isolated characters through some truly disconcerting images, especially in the cathartically violent final third where psychological tension is finally given tragic release.
Watching the self-centred men and women of Maps to the Stars facilitate their own train wreck, I was reminded of another all-American satire from a revered 71-yearold, The Wolf of Wall Street. While Scorsese’s enjoyable black comedy more than matches Cronenberg’s in terms of the amount of ‘shocking’ content put to screen, Maps to the Stars nevertheless manages to make Scorsese’s well-crafted three hours of debauchery look like the relatively tame work of a respected elder statesman content to rest on his laurels. The difference is that while Scorsese, for the most part, appears happy to preach to the choir with another reworking of the Goodfellas blueprint, Cronenberg is a director who seems always eager to challenge himself and his audience. If Maps to the Stars occasionally feels emotionally cold on first viewing then that’s just par for the course from a director whose greatest films often need to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. As it stands, I still wouldn’t need a whole hand’s worth of fingers to count the number of American films I’ve enjoyed more this year. Over forty-five years into his career, David Cronenberg continues to add to his legacy.