1 Hr., 52 Mins.
Maps to the Stars March 8, 2015
You'd think the soap operatic flares (incest, famous mothers, mysterious personal assistants, haughty child stars, and more) of Maps to the Stars would give it an enjoyably melodramatic edge.
But an absurd Hollywood satire it ain't. Unsurprisingly, considering director David Cronenberg's previous films, it mopes along with writhing cynicism until characters begin to set themselves on fire and get bludgeoned to death. The characters are nasty, and so are the storylines and expensive furnishings; you probably haven’t seen a Tinsel Town film this contemptuous, but you've certainly had better times at the movies before.
I guess you wouldn’t expect anything different from the macabre-adoring Cronenberg, but there might be a part of you that wishes we were lurking in the shadow of the soul sister of The Player instead of Debbie Downer’s.
David Lynch got his kicks destroying the lives of the characters Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring played in Mulholland Dr., and Cronenberg has no trouble poisoning the wells the people in Maps to the Stars drink from. The Weiss family, who mirror the shameful dysfunction of the Spears’ or the Lohan’s, have slithered their way into Hollywood, but the scraggly hole they snuck in through is rapidly closing. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) makes a living as a famed television psychiatrist with a starry clientele, while his 13-year-old son (Evan Bird) is a successful child actor who headlines a shitty franchise when he’s not residing in rehab. Christina, mother to Benjie and wife to Stafford, acts as her son’s agent, clinging to his fame as she tries to find meaning in her empty, sad life.
Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), one of Stafford’s many patients, is an aging, irrelevant actress whose entire career has been overshadowed by her legendary mother (Sarah Gadon), who prematurely died in a house fire in the 1970s. Making her way into town is the enigmatic Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman with troubling burns on the side of her body; she finds a job as Havana’s personal assistant, but her dangerous connection with the Weiss family leaves her slightly cursed.
If I’ve explained the plot well, then Maps to the Stars might sound enticing, carrying the same self-awareness of Twin Peaks while retaining the screeching satire of Sunset Boulevard. But neither comparison is realized.
I desperately wanted to like Maps to the Stars, (Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska are certainly two of Hollywood’s most talented actresses and Cronenberg is a consistently interesting director), but it’s much too unlikable to be anything other than dreary. The humor is sharp, but when humor is also underlined in a pen based in gloominess, it’s hard to do anything other than remained sickened. The blame can’t be placed on Cronenberg — his claustrophobic, fearlessly ghoulish filmmaking style is as fresh as ever — but on Wagner, whose screenplay wants to be sardonic but eventually runs out of ideas. The ending, which is essentially a series of disturbing character offings, seems like an act of haste instead of a necessity.
But if Maps to the Stars isn’t as delicious as I wish it was, it never stops being watchable, in part to the cast (a roundtable of fantastic performances) and in part to Cronenberg’s unwaveringly creepy handling of it all. It isn’t necessarily a horror film, but there’s always a part of us that twitches in fear that something bad will happen. Bad stuff unavoidably does happen; I just wish the negativity were more creative. But if the woods are lovely, dark, and deep and you’ve got promises to keep your icky mood intact, Maps to the Stars might contain just enough pessimism to toot your raincloud-drenched horn. C+