By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Robert Pattinson, and Sarah Gordon
There are very few filmmakers who have had as peculiar a career as David Cronenberg. After dwelling into sexual desires/body horror nastiness combos like The Brood and They Came From Within, he gained a reputation as the go-to director if you want hard-edged grimy horror. What did he do from there? Direct a very good onscreen rendition of Stephen King’s low-key novel The Dead Zone. He then regained his former reputation, only with a little more credibility in 1986’s Oscar winning (the first ever Best Make-Up Effects Award) remake of The Fly. A disturbing account of a brilliant doctor’s metamorphosis into a fly, the movie was Cronenberg at his disturbing best. Scenes from that film (including Goldblum’s character vomiting on disintegrated body parts) still give me nightmares to this day. Since then, Cronenberg has dabbled in graphic novel adaptations (A History of Violence), video game horror (Existenz) and examinations into the world of financial gain (Cosmopolis). All of which had mixed results. It would seem that Cronenberg had explored all he wanted to explore. Which is why it surprised the hell out of me to slowly come to the realization that his new film Maps of the Stars marks Cronenberg’s first foray into the world of comedy.
Or is it? There’s something very intrinsic about Maps of the Stars in that it knows what it wants to be but doesn’t want its audience in on the secret. On one end, there are some bitingly hysterical lines being thrown around (most of which, believe it or not, belong to Pattinson). On the other, two characters experience scary hallucinations that are reminiscent of Cronenberg when he was at his horrific best. Are there three ends to this thing? I’m not sure, but all I know is that while Maps of the Stars doesn’t always hit the right stride, it made for a very watchable 111 minutes.
Maps of the Stars concerns the interconnecting stories of the always sardonic Hollywood elite. First, there’s Havana Segrand (Moore). A washed up Hollywood has-been who’s vying to play her dead mother in an upcoming biographical film. Then there’s her extremely creepy therapist Stafford Weiss (played with a nice change of pace by Cusack) whose 13-year-old privileged son (Bird) is the star of the biggest teen film franchise called Bad Babysitter. Through all of this walks in hot off the bus, stars in her eyes, up and coming Hollywood player Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska). She meets up with Carrie Fisher (playing herself), who in turn hooks her up with a personal assistant job working for Havana. She then strikes up a friendship with Havana’s less than bashful limo driver (Pattinson).
From there, hijinks ensue and Hollywood takes perhaps the biggest onscreen bashing I have ever seen. I’m not kidding folks. I wouldn’t call this a satire. I would call it a vicious rout. A film like this could come off as everyone involved patting themselves on the back for not being a part of that portion of Hollyweird. After all, there have been many films of this type made over the years (anyone remember the Joe Eszterhas penned film from 1997 called Burn Hollywood, Burn?), yet the only one I have revisited fondly and I feel did the subject matter well is 1992’s The Player. Here, Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner (Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors) have concocted a story that feels less self-indulgent and more unhinged. The backlash that comes with being visceral and scornful in a business that calls for that surface to remain hidden comes off the screen in a way I have never seen before.
The vision is enhanced by Moore’s performance, which I feel ranks right up there with the best in her career. The hallucinations she’s experiencing are scary and tense, and she plays the part of ferociously damaged perfectly. The parallelism drawn between her life and Benje’s (who just got out of rehab and is having hallucinations of his own) is also extremely well done. Fisher, who not only has a nice rep with science fiction fans, but also knows a thing or two about how to satire Hollywood (Postcards From The Edge), gets in a few more digs here, and it’s a pleasure to watch. Pattinson has become an unlikely go to actor for Cronenberg, having also worked with him on 2012’s Cosmopolis. But in a bit of unironic irony, instead of playing the passenger in a limo like he did then, here he is playing the driver. Pattinson isn’t onscreen long enough to make too much of an impression (IE: sway Twilight haters), but his screen time is never wasted. And as I already stated, the majority of the most iniquitous jabs at the business come from him.
I feel Maps to the Stars will definitely have a love it or leave it impression on its viewers. Me, I went with the flow regarding where exactly Cronenberg was taking me. His sardonic wit has always had a bit of viciousness to it, and I respected just how morbidly vapid the film got. The most surprising part was just how much of his horror background is also included here, and the consciousness of an unwinding inner circle is put fully on display throughout the entire narrative. The script is extremely sharp ended, and it feels like if Bret Easton Ellis had taken dramatic writing classes. Your enjoyment of Maps to the Stars will solely depend on how much of these characters you can take. But if you realize that you are witnessing a punch to the face instead of a pat on the back, you might be more inclined to relish in it. Make that a shotgun shell to the head.