MAPS TO THE STARS * 1 / 2
Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson. Screeenplay by Bruce Wagner. Directed by David Cronenberg.
I suppose one could make a case for David Cronenberg’s long and marvelous career being an extended chronicle of hermetically closed eco-systems violently breaking down due to the presence of an outside irritant. The rogue element is typically deviant lust –colorfully rendered via car-fucking, twin-swapping, an uncontrollable urge to spank Kiera Knightley or just plain old Mugwump jism — but we could also easily be talking about Viggo’s pseudonymous gangsters in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Robert Pattinson’s asymmetrical prostate in Cosmopolis, or the fly itself in The Fly. If you’ll permit me to be grossly reductive about this vastly varied yet singularly specific body of work, Cronenberg’s point seems to be that from small things, big things crumble.
Maps to the Stars provides Cronenberg with his most glamorous, insidiously insular antfarm yet: Hollywood. It’s an easy, obvious target, which is probably why it feels like such a crushing disappointment from a filmmaker I usually revere. Working from a decades-old screenplay by industry knockabout Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars is lumpy and dated, trafficking too often in lame, insider-ish gags nibbling on the hand that feeds, as one might expect from Wagner — the hacky writer my transplanted Angeleno pal dubbed “a thinner, more pretentious Bruce Villanch.” (I couldn’t top that one Charlie, so I stole it.)
But Cronenberg doesn’t shoot it as a satire, despite the presence of many sequences that would not feel out of place in one of those slapdash eighties comedies back when everybody threw the words “Beverly Hills” into the title and gawked at opulent lifestyles. Aiming for something akin to a snickering Greek tragedy, Maps to the Stars begins with the return of prodigal daughter Agatha Weiss. Played by Mia Wasikowska (whose pancake-flat line readings are an awful hindrance anywhere outside of Jarmusch or Cronenberg’s peculiar universes) she’s a schizophrenic pyromaniac released from a juvenile mental institution and headed to Hollywood so she can make things right with the famous family that abandoned her and now pretends she doesn’t exist — though to their credit they only did so as a last resort, after she tried to burn them all to death.
Agatha’s baby brother is a petulant child superstar in the Culkin mode with a drug problem dwarfed by the chip on his shoulder. (I don’t like to call out pre-adolescent actors for giving crappy performances because they’re kids doing what they’re told, so we’ll just say he’s played by Evan Bird and leave it at that.) Hyperactive Stage Mom is Olivia Williams screeching every moment on the edge of tears, and Dad is a New Age guru/masseuse with a best-selling book titled Secrets Kill, because irony. (He’s played by John Cusack, and calling his wild-eyed, unmodulated work here a disaster would be unfair to actual disasters like Katrina and shit.)
Shortly after arriving in LaLa Land, Agatha falls into the orbit of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) a calamitously needy specimen of second-generation Hollywood royalty desperately clinging to the lower rungs of fame and still slipping all the same. Moore’s go-for-broke performance scored her the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and I suppose she earned it just on the basis of sheer physical exertion. Moore plays all her interactions on the same level as her pharmacy freakout in Magnolia, clawing and aching with a couple extra layers of absurdity, as the character is an idiot.
Ghosts abound in Maps to the Stars, with Havana in particular tormented by the shadows of her much younger, long-dead mother (Sarah Gadon) – the silver screen legend who molested her as a child. Just in case Wagner’s script wasn’t already obvious enough, the Hollywood community is literally incestuous.
Robert Pattinson turns up as a caddish chauffeur who fucks famous sex-bomb actresses older than his Mom in the back of his limousine, as apparently that’s what Robert Pattinson does in every David Cronenberg movie now. But I like this kid, he’s funny and can deadpan like a champ on his director’s zombie-fied wavelength.
Shooting for the first time on location in Los Angeles instead of in his beloved Canada, Cronenberg loses all the wonderful alien weirdness you get when something like Cosmopolis is half-pretending it’s New York City but glaringly obviously isn’t. He pins his characters in isolated single shots — they’re not listening to each other anyway — but all this formal rigor is beside the point when the material is so lazy and cheap. Cronenberg’s last two pictures were Freud V. Jung: Dawn of Spanking by way of Christopher Hampton and then a Don DeLillo adaptation. Bruce Wagner is more than a slight step down, cerebrally.
There’s one really great moment, though. Moore is on a Vicodin bender all fucked up and constipated in the bathroom, passing gas and grunting while demanding laxatives from her personal assistant. She suddenly takes a kindly, zonked interest for the very first time in her employee’s personal life while a ghastly cacophony of deafening farts echo from the toilet bowl beneath her sunny sentiments.
It’s a prime scene of vintage Cronenberg body-horror, and I wish Maps to the Stars had more like it.