Maps to the Stars

 

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird

Director: David Cronenberg

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars is an acidic black comedy about Hollywood vapidness and familial ties that also traffics in elements of atmospheric ghost story and industry satire. It's as much of a body-horror exercise as something like Videodrome or The Fly; only this time, we are peering inside the rotting carcass of the Hollywood industrial system. Meanwhile, the script by Bruce Wagner is a savagely funny riff on the perversity of the American Dream that also wedges in nepotism and incest as central motifs. Basically, Maps to the Stars spares no one from it's scabrous misanthropy, and that includes the audience.

What makes the film such a compelling satire beyond it's whiplashing tone is it's refusal to create a single redeemable character. Even what seems to be the audience surrogate Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim visiting L.A. from Florida, is given physical scars and a waifish quality that keeps us at a distance. Her connection to Stafford, Cristina, and Benje Weiss (John Cusack, Olivia Williams, and Evan Bird, respectively), informs the basis for the plot, but there are other characters filtering in and out that are just as important. Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand, an aging actress with bleached blonde hair and delusions of grandeur, whose main ambition is snagging the role of her late movie-star mother in a remake of one of her hit films. Seeking work, Agatha lands herself a gig as Havana's thankless assistant, even as she pines for her limo driver (Robert Pattinson in a winking reversal of his role in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis). What binds all of these various self-obsessed, repulsive people together are the aforementioned motifs of nepotism and incest which weaves it's way through Wagner's tragicomic screenplay. In a way, Maps to the Stars is like charting a fucked up family tree that takes into account generational sins, familial tragedy, abuse, and neglect passed down through time.

From an acting standpoint, Moore is brilliantly unhinged as a woman desperately clinging to the absurd hope of being relevant in Hollywood, and though Havana is an obvious wreck, Moore never grandstands. The miracle of her performance, beyond the lack of vanity in terms of physical appearance, is that she allows us to see the wounded child beneath the vapid facade. This is most clearly seen in her scenes opposite Cusack, who plays a wacko self-help guru exposing New Age mumbo-jumbo, and whose bizarre massage therapy session in which he evokes Havana's long-dead mother provide some of the film's queasiest laughs. Additionally, Evan Bird is tremendous as a Justin Bieber-esque child superstar haunted by a ghost of one of his dead fans, and whose severe dickishness to those around him reveals the black heart undergirding an industry placing box office profits over human decency. Interestingly, though Agatha initially seems to be the film's protagonist, each character gets ample screen time to dig into the Grand Guignol theatricality of the proceedings here, giving the film a feeling of ensemble playfulness which consistently keeps the audience off-guard.

For his part, Cronenberg deftly navigates the picture's odd tone; from the heightened satire of industry, ala Robert Altman's The Player, to the supernaturally-informed horror elements of the deceased specters haunting Tinseltown, as well as the surprisingly melancholic finale in which the familial/incestuous threads collide. Truthfully, despite the film's toxically brutal viewpoint, it nonetheless feels like an urgent plea for compassion and understanding for a town that literally and metaphorically chews up lives and then spews them out. Beneath the eviscerating satire (which, let's be honest, is covering familiar territory), there's something poignant about a psychodrama that allows the farcical elements to recede into the background by the third act, which contains a certain emotional honesty. It's the Dream Factory as house of horrors to be sure, but one can also feel Cronenberg and Wagner breathing a sigh of resignation, almost as if things didn't have to turn out this way.