Maps to the Stars
by Jordan Canahai
Throughout a career that spans over 40 years the acclaimed Canadian director David Cronenberg has amassed a sturdy reputation as one of his generations most distinct and celebrated filmmakers, having proven himself a first rate technician and master of the science fiction and horror genres, as well as an audacious and challenging artist unafraid to wrestle with the ugly nature of human beings and the dark side of the mind. His body of work features a handful of modern classics that range from the very commercial (The Dead Zone, The Fly) to farther outside the mainstream (Dead Ringers, Crash). In the last decade or so he’s boldly stepped away from the kind of twisted genre filmmaking, or “body horror” he’s made his trademark (most fully realized in his masterpiece Videodrome), instead meshing his sensibilities with material that may not seem a natural fit. Sometimes the results have been superb, such as in his back-to-back crime dramas A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Other times, like with his previous effort Cosmopolis, it’s resulted in an interesting failure. His latest film, the satirical Hollywood drama Maps to the Stars, unfortunately belongs to the latter category.
Maps to the Stars details the deeply dysfunctional and tortured lives of the Weiss family, a Hollywood dynasty headed by self-help guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and his wife Christina (Olivia Williams), whose duties revolve mostly around managing their narcissistic, drug addled child-star son, Benjie (Evan Bird). One of Stafford’s clients, the washed up actress Havana (Julianne Moore), desperate to star in an upcoming remake in the lead role her mother made famous, is convinced she’s being haunted by her mother’s ghost. Needing a personal assistant while attempting to cope, she hires the Weiss’s daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowski), who’s fresh out of a mental hospital and dealing with ghosts of her own. It was there she became involved with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and aspiring actor, whose fate will also become intertwined with Havana’s and that of the rest of the Weiss Family.
Confused yet? As writer Bruce Wagner’s screenplay unfolds a great deal of unpleasant discoveries and happenings follow. There are further mental breakdowns and revelations of incest. Maps to the Stars seems just as concerned with poking fun at the clichés of family melodrama as it is taking a stab at the black heart of Hollywood, though it ultimately does both with mixed success. Still, it does feature some uniformly strong acting from the ensemble cast. Particularly impressive is Moore, portraying an actress whose personality couldn’t be further from the one Moore’s real-life reputation suggests, she nevertheless breaks through Wagner’s glibness and Cronenberg’s misanthropy to give the picture its soul. Pattinson is similarly good and deserves props for continuing to take on roles that stand as a break from his star-making turn in Twilight.
Despite how Cronenberg’s films always address such heady intellectual themes and the often-cold detachment with which he realizes them, his best work always manages to hit (sometimes quite literally) on a gut-level. Part of what made A History of Violence and Eastern Promises so successful, for instance, was how his cool remove stood in contrast so starkly with the visceral proceedings of those gangster tales, especially in the way sick violence often gave way to pitch-black humor. Working in territory Billy Wilder so brilliantly staked out in Sunset Boulevard, however, he proves far less comfortable. Though it’s interesting to see the unpleasant side of L.A. through Cronenberg’s distant lens, much of the dark comedy that’s intended to come through in Maps to the Stars just doesn’t really register. The end result is a curious entry in Cronenberg’s canon, but a largely inconsequential one.
Watch the trailer for Maps to the Stars
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