Unsettling and often unpleasant, Maps to the Stars teeters between dark (albeit funny) satire of Hollywood and luridly over-baked melodrama. Director David Cronenberg presents Bruce Wagner’s screenplay, full of greed, ambition, and multiple flavors of bad behavior, simultaneously as a ghost story, a modern-day Greek tragedy, and a peek behind the curtain at the lives of the rich, famous, and ridiculously over-privileged.
(Confused yet? Don’t think seeing the movie will straighten things out for you; it’s only likely to raise more questions.)
Maps’ multiple intersecting plots follow Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, incredible as always), a famous but fortysomething movie star ravenous to play her own mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), in a planned remake of the mom’s most famous film. Mommy, who perished in a fire, was (probably) physically and sexually abusive to little Havana, who now wants to work through her pain and trauma by embodying her tormentor. But far more important to this shallow, two-faced Hollywood survivor: it’s a great part.
The other plot thread concerns Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), an obnoxious child star who, at 13, is already a rehab and 12-step veteran - none of which affects his bankability at the box office in the slightest. Benjie’s mom Christina (Olivia Williams) is equally protective of her son and the back-end points she helps negotiate on his latest movie (the sequel to his global blockbuster Bad Babysitter). Dad is Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a tough-love self-help guru who is as warm and cuddly as the pre-transformation Grinch.
Tying the two threads together is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), Benjie’s older sister and Havana’s new personal assistant, a.k.a. her “chore whore.” Agatha, scarred both physically and mentally, has been locked away in a Florida loony bin after drugging her little brother and setting the house on fire. Her parents, perhaps understandably, are less than thrilled that she’s back in Los Angeles, though Benjie is kind of curious to meet she-who-must-not-be-named.
Robert Pattinson plays limo driver/wannabe actor/writer Jerome Fontana, the closest thing Maps has to a “normal” person with some kind of moral compass. That is, he’s only an opportunistic user, which in Hollywood makes him so unremarkable as to not even be noticed.
Various characters are haunted by creepy, tormenting parents and children, both real and ghostly. Cronenberg, master of the matter-of-factly macabre and the eerily uncomfortable (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ, the non-preachy version of Crash) uses a measured pace and a deadpan affect to show horrible things happening in beautiful settings. The twin themes of fire and water are beautifully expressed in Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography.
There is some humor, most of it dark. When Moore’s Havana takes part in a career-enhancing girl-girl-guy three-way with Sterl Carruth (Jonathan Watton), the star of the movie she wants so desperately to be cast in, he leaves the R-rated action to take a phone call from the film’s director. Moore’s plaintive plea? “Mention my name!”
There’s also Benjie’s rather admiring characterization of his truly crazy sister, after learning how she scored a job as Havana’s assistant (it was via Carrie Fisher, playing herself in a quickie cameo): “For a disfigured schizophrenic, you’ve got the town pretty wired.”
No matter how sharp the inside-Hollywood jokes are, however, they gave me a strong feeling of “seen that” déjà vu. After all, Tinseltown has been standing in for the sick soul of society since at least The Day of the Locust, and TMZ and social media have unearthed nearly every variant of bad behavior imaginable (though I’m sure there’s always something worse we haven’t seen - yet).
As for the incest-laden family tragedy and the horrifying deaths that pile up as the movie progresses, they were, at least for me, curiously unaffecting emotionally. It’s tough to mourn the passing of characters that have swung back and forth between caricature and pathos for 111 minutes. I think this is part of Cronenberg and Wagner’s plan: we’re not meant to empathize with these monsters, at least not for any great length of time.
If this is the case, they are both defeated and saved by the performances of Moore and, to a lesser extent, Wasikowska and Pattinson. As she did in Boogie Nights, Moore finds the humanity in a wretchedly outlandish person. As she does in Still Alice, which in a just world will finally win Moore the Oscar she deserves, we see - and share - her emotional journey, even (and especially) when it travels through troubling territory.
Wasikowska, who also brought something human to the heartless mess that was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, takes us inside her madness and sadness without asking for undue sympathy. And Pattinson, whom I’ve scorned as a shinily bloodsucking pretty boy, has a terrific flirtation-and-sex scene with Moore that reveals both the length and the limits of his empty ambitions.
Is Maps to the Stars worth your time and money? For Cronenberg fans, absolutely (though that probably goes without saying). For others, be prepared for a tough but memorable and rarely dull movie. And remember, if you don’t hate each character at least once during the movie, you’re not paying attention.