“Maps to the Stars” opened February 27 in a coordinated release blitz in theaters and all over VOD, but despite its bold distribution, it’s not one of the greats from director David Cronenberg’s oeuvre. His dark comedy is a poisoned pen letter to Hollywood that plays a bit too obviously. It sneers rather broadly at everyone from New Age psychologists to child stars, but there’s little that’s new in taking aim at such Tinsel Town types. The film is well acted, and there are moments of shocking violence that play almost like horror, but any day in the lives of the Kardashians seems more disturbing than most anything here.
Julianne Moore won an Oscar last week for “Still Alice” and she gives another terrific performance here. She plays Havana Segrand, a once beautiful ingénue now well into her forties, who sees a chance at Hollywood redemption if she can get cast in the remake of the film that made her actress mother (Sarah Gadon) a star decades earlier. Havana is obsessing over her chances, yet it comes with mixed emotions. Havana knows that her mother was a great talent, but the ghost of her mother and the sexual abuse she suffered at her hand haunts her.
Havana lugs around that baggage like she’s a Samsonite showroom. She’s a hot mess, fragile one moment, belligerent the next. Moore makes this aging, bleached blonde a truly pathetic character, like a coked-up Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). And because it’s Moore, Havana even comes off as sympathetic at times. Unfortunately, she’s virtually the only character in the film that summons much of it from the audience. Everyone else is quite awful and irredeemable.
The motley group of Hollywood wannabe’s and one-percenters that screenwriter Bruce Wagner has written here are all horrid, and they’re also all ‘types’ we’ve seen many times before. They’re not only exceedingly familiar but these versions lack nuance or something that gives them something truly notable. Good actors play them too but the characters still seem largely one-note. And Cronenberg seems at a loss to know how to make them more relatable or worthy of our interest. Perhaps he and Wagner don’t want them to be, but such choices keep this movie at arms length too often.
John Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, Havana’s New Age guru, who is introduced as a pretentious, self-absorbed ass from the get-go and he doesn’t show much beyond such smarm throughout the rest of the film. His brittle wife Christina (Olivia Williams) is just as despicable and shallow. It’s hard to care about these two especially when we see them enable their bratty child star son Benji (Evan Bird) to walk all over everyone. Benji makes Damien from “The Omen” seem like a choirboy. He’s a cocky brat, barely out of junior high, and freshly out of drug rehab too. Soon, he’s back to his old tricks, and treating everyone like they’re his servants.
They are in a way, as he’s the meal ticket for a lot of the characters in this movie. Yet despite being given a number of vicious lines that could be funny, the young actor Bird doesn’t make his villain one you love to hate. You just hate him. The three Weiss’ take up so much of the film, it starts to sink the picture. They’re awful, and awfully dull after awhile.
The Weiss’ disturbed daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up at their doorstep, fresh from her stint in an asylum, and she’s bent on destruction. Agatha has never forgiven her parents for their shabby treatment of her, and despite a back-story involving self-mutilation and fire, Agatha seems like more of a device than a flesh and blood character. (She’s the revenge driving the plot, what little there is of it here.)
Wasikowska is a wonderful actress and has played such teens before, like in the brilliant “Stoker” from 2013, but here she’s too wan and colorless. She starts working with Havana, but even their scenes together seem rather limp. The two actresses had great chemistry together when they starred in “The Kids Are Alright” (2010) but there’s not as much spark here.
Throughout this film, with its cast of shallow entertainment industry types who lie to themselves and one another, Cronenberg and Wagner portray Tinsel Town as one big illusion, but we’ve seen that editorial stance all the time. What else do they have to say? With 40 years in Hollywood, what singular insights has Cronenberg gleamed that he could share that are more provocative? There must be many, but they aren’t here.
All the players here are simply too one-dimensional in their quest for Hollywood fortune and we need something to hang onto as we follow them for two hours. Robert Pattinson plays a soft-spoken actor/writer wannabe here who starts to create some genuine empathy, but then he’s relegated to mostly a supporting role. The Weiss’ fill the center stage and they create a black hole.
Similar commentary about show biz shallowness was rendered effectively in the aforementioned “Sunset Boulevard” and also in movies like “Star 80″(1983). Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) may have been delusional about her comeback possibilities in Billy Wilder’s classic, but your heart went out to her because of how shabbily the town treated the aging actress. And in Bob Fosse’s under-appreciated drama, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) truly was a garish hanger-on to the Hollywood dream, but the way he was trampled on by those using his Playmate wife Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), was both tragic and sad.
Cronenberg probably dislikes the characters here too much to create much empathy for them, but he certainly knows how to create a sense of dread around these terrible people. A pall of uneasiness hangs over the entire film, and it gives the film a veritable horror movie vibe. It’s familiar terrain to the man who gave us some of the best frighteners in the last 30 plus years, from “Scanners” (1981) to his remake of “The Fly” (1986) to “Dead Ringers” (1988).
The brilliant Canadian director also knows how to use violence to great effect, and he demonstrates that here as well. “Maps to the Stars” has some genuinely shocking moments here that truly punch you in the gut. Cronenberg wisely lingers on the aftermath of these destructive moments too as he knows that violence comes with casualties, and murder and death should be horrifying to watch.
Late in the movie, a number of characters meet horrible demises. One is even bludgeoned to death with an Oscar. It’s a bit on the nose, but make no mistake, Cronenberg clearly despises the town and all its madness. For him, there is no “Hooray for Hollywood”, only horror played out by too many monsters.