In an industry about appearances and the most fanciful of illusions, is it really any wonder that there are so many films on the subject of Hollywood’s own self-worth complex? Granted, Maps to the Stars is far from a Hollywood production, despite its across-the-board A-list talent. That really never could be when it is so fanged in its multi-prong takedown of a community that covers up teenage narcotic abuse and multi-generational incest. No, David Cronenberg’s latest, which is independently financed, is deep from screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s wheelhouse of insider knowledge about the smug and smut that keeps more stars than there are in the heavens twinkling up above.
Thus in the tradition of the author’s own subgenre, which is meant to peak behind the curtain (think I’m Losing You), Maps to the Stars is a brilliantly acted and mercilessly acerbic satire of Tinseltown. Unfortunately, that’s also just the first 15 minutes, and from there things start to get really nasty.
With a glossy title that only ever entices the most docile of LA visitors, Maps to the Stars builds an admittedly impressive web of broken lives and self-deluded narcissists from every walk of life along Beverly Hills. There are the movie stars, both young and “old” (Evan Bird and Julianne Moore), as well as the parasitic parents who feed off their golden calves (John Cusack and Olivia Williams). There are the struggling wannnabes trying to break into the business while chauffering celebrities (Robert Pattinson), and then there are the mystery folks—the kind who seem to come to LA just to chase the shooting stars, such as the enigmatic Agatha (Mia Wasikowska).
Fresh off the bus from “Jupiter” (or at least Jupiter, Florida), Agatha opens the film as an outsider that insolates herself within the system ridiculously easy. This is an especially impressive feat since throughout the whole picture her arms and hands are completely covered with black cloth due to a mystifying burn from her childhood. It’s apparently not enough to keep her from wanting to dance with the movie gods, or at least their children. Thanks to a humorous connection, Agatha finds herself employed as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Moore), faded movie star royalty who longs to surpass the shadow of her late legendary mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), a long-lost Natalie Wood type with a dark secret.
Clarice’s probable malevolence in her abuse of a young Havana is awakened throughout the movie in vintage Cronenberg sequences of surrealism that borders on horror. In several scenes, a ghostly Clarice haunts Havana’s mind and bedroom, albeit not enough for Havana to avoid a remake of one of her mother’s most treasured films. Havana covets playing the same role as her mother, a fixation likely exacerbated by her opportunistic “therapist.” The self-help guru is named Stafford Weiss (Cusack) and he along with his terrifying stage-mother wife (Williams) manages the next Justin Bieber-in-waiting, Benjie Weiss (Bird).
Benjie’s sequences will undoubtedly be the audience favorite. The star of a hit TV series, Benjie has become a brand name with his own raunchy film comedy franchise, Bad Babysitter. Only 13-years-old and already serving a stint in rehab for drug abuse, Benjie is the precocious adolescent id that one minute is visiting a “Make a Wish” child in the hospital and is in the next moment calling his personal assistant a “Jew faggot.” In one of the movie’s best scenes, Benjie and his mother sit before a sterile board of studio executive plastic smiles as he is needled about how he can stay sober for Bad Babysitter 2. Caring more about his PR appeal than his actual health, the execs have all the genuine concern of Christopher Lee staring at the next Wicker Man.
However, as mean-spiritedly amusing as Maps to the Stars can be, eventually it becomes apparent that self-satisfied cruelty is all the picture is trading on. Traditionally, Cronenberg finds an unquenchable humanity in his subject matter, no matter how ugly or obscured by make-up prosthetics or Russian mafia tattoos. Conversely, the far more lightly-touched Maps feels shockingly removed from the authenticity usually sought by a filmmaker who once made a term paper on Freud and Jung into a masterpiece of understated drama. Pattinson who proved to be an untapped resource in Cronenberg’s last film, Cosmopolis, only exists here to reinforce there are no nice people in this business. A chuckle about how he intends to convert to Scientology to help his career is all he has to go on as a character builder.
To be sure, the best roles in the film belong to Moore and Wasikowska. The latter finds an eerily otherworldly sunshine to project when her insides must look more like the Northeast in January, as opposed to her summertime Southern California surroundings. Moore, meanwhile, devours the part of an industry veteran who still mistakes sex for negotiation and employees as playthings. There is a wordless desperation in every strained laugh and joy that when true happiness finally comes, in the grimmest of contexts, it is a terror to behold.
But much like Benjie’s far more contemporary deconstruction of vapidity and self- aggrandizement, it comes to little when the third act devolves into lurid plot twists of soap operatic proportions. There is a film-within-a-film bandied about between screenwriters on the subject of a “mythical” and beautiful indie flick centered on incest. But when the actual incest revelations come tumbling out of this movie, their shock stems solely from the blatantly miscalculated manipulation of Maps’ own screenplay.
Early on in Maps to the Stars, Carrie Fisher appears as herself in a delicious cameo that embodies all the cynicism the rest of the movie strains for. As an actress who has teased an encyclopedic knowledge of Golden Age immorality that might even make this film blush, she appears as a friend and confidant to Moore’s fictional daughter of Hollywood aristocracy. And it strikes one that Fisher, no stranger to movie star mothers (or illicit affairs from any number of family members), could one day craft the perfect show biz caricature that so many other efforts long to be.
But for this picture, it really is like being on a tour bus to the stars. You think you’re going somewhere celestial or salacious but wind up with that barren feeling of disappointment by journey’s end.
***This review was first published on September 27, 2014.