In Maps to the Stars, body horror auteur David Cronenberg’s latest film, the backdrop to this lurid tale of sex and violence is that most people in Hollywood are screwed up and emotionally broken... News flash, David, this is not a new idea. Hell, most people outside of Hollywood are screwed up and emotionally broken. The only difference is that insane amounts of money allow successful people in the entertainment industry to indulge in every crazy whim.
Maps tells the story of a “typical” show biz family. Stafford (John Cusack) is a famous self-help guru, his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) is the hard as nails manager/agent for their son, named Benjie (Evan Bird), who is the drug addled star of a hit tween movie franchise called Bad Babysitter. Their slow unraveling comes when the couple’s estranged daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) reappears after a long absence. Agatha was the original bad babysitter, and her résumé includes arson and incestuous tendencies.
Along the way we meet Havana Segrand, a fading starlet who is obsessed with getting the lead in the remake of Stolen Waters, desperate to reprise her dead mother’s star turn from the original. Havana is played by Julianne Moore, who proves, once again, that she can do anything. Her portrayal of Havana as a yoga practicing hippie Los Angelino, who relies more and more on prescription drugs when she starts seeing her mother’s ghost, is on point. Moore’s hilarious send up of the typical Valley girl accent is nearly worth the price of admission alone.
Good performances aside, without the technical competence of the filmmaking, the story of Maps to the Stars is thoroughly inane. It’s almost as inane as the supposed plot in a movie you might not have heard of called The Canyons. Writer Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) produced The Canyons with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 as a way to get back on the Hollywood A-list. The result, revolving around young Hollywood wannabes who devolve into jealous violence, was laughably inept and critically derided. The craftsmanship of Maps is infinitely better, but Bruce Wagner’s screenplay reminded me of The Canyons’ weak story about the excesses of Tinseltown's most depraved.
The basic premise of Hollywood as a playground for the insane can be mined for some interesting filmmaking material – just look at Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Maps to the Stars plays like a trip through Hell with Harvey Weinstein as your personal tour guide. Cronenberg said in an interview that he doesn’t consider Maps a satire, and that he thinks Wagner’s screenplay is too accurate to be true satire. If that’s right, our world is a more incoherent place than I realized. The third act completely breaks down when a character is found burning alive with no explanation or resolution. Every last plot twist doesn’t need to be nicely tied up, but a movie needs something more than crazy people doing crazy things for two hours in order to be interesting.
And yet Cronenberg proves how mesmerizing a filmmaker he can be, because there is something inexplicably entrancing about Maps to the Stars. He eschews establishing shots in most scenes, relying heavily on tight two shots and close-ups. The atmosphere here is dark and claustrophobic, even palpable. From Videodrome to Dead Ringers to A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the director’s overriding tone is discomfiting, one of existential angst. In Agatha, with her patchwork of burn scars, Cronenberg’s obsession with physical deformity is on full display here, as is his penchant for sudden eruptions of violence.
Cronenberg has been working for over four decades, and he has a unique style, but there’s a certain David Lynch-ian influence on Maps to the Stars. One scene in particular, where Agatha practices a bizarre dance routine while one of her father’s self-help programs drones on in the background, put me in mind of Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. Whatever Cronenberg’s inspiration, some of these scenes work. That’s due in no small part to Howard Shore’s evocative score, bringing an ethereal touch with synthesizer-heavy music. This is Cronenberg and Shore’s 15th collaboration, and it is obvious how finely tuned they are as a creative team.
In the end, Maps to the Stars is an engrossing film that falls just shy of being able to recommend it. It’s a case of the whole movie not being greater than the sum of its parts, though one that haunted me when I left the theater. For about an hour after the screening, the world seemed like a funhouse mirror version of its usual self. Any movie that makes the world seem different, even for a short time, has something going for it.