Fifteen minutes into Maps to the Stars, I was certain that David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire would become one of my favorite films of the year. The remarkable opening shot captures a mysterious traveler (Mia Wasikowska) inside a bus as she prepares for an unknown journey. Voyeuristically, Peter Suschitzky’s camera creeps from behind and rests on the young woman. And just like that (poof) – she arrives in Tinseltown, home of the stars. But Agatha Weiss is no stranger to Hollywood, even if she claims to be from Jupiter. While Cronenberg’s visuals and Bruce Wagner’s dialogue left me speechless early on, the pacing and tone of the final half inspired a couple face-palms. Even so, Cronenberg has plenty to say with Maps to the Stars, and the film’s best moments are powerful.
Centered around a dysfunctional Hollywood family, Maps to the Stars symbolically breaks down the doors of the Weiss mansion and offers a few reality checks. For example, teen actor Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) appears kind and gentle when visiting a sick hospital patient but transforms into a raving lunatic once he discovers that she doesn’t have AIDS — just Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Benjie huffs, he puffs and proceeds to deliver a racial slur combo that would make TMZ cameraman drool. It’s shocking, yes, and that’s Cronenberg’s point. Once Benji settles back into a life of sobriety (yep, he’s already at that stage), his life takes another downward spiral when the cancer patient dies and begins showing up at his LA pad.
Hallucinations are essential to the madness of Maps to the Stars. Benjie’s well-known father (John Cusack), a TV psychologist, treats a confused, middle-aged actress who can’t escape haunting memories of her famous mother. Despite all that, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) would like to honor her late mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), by updating one of her classic roles. In reality, the aging starlet simply needs a career boost. After being recommended by Twitter friend Carrie Fisher, the curious Agatha lands a job with Ms. Segrand, which opens up the doors, literally, to her lost family. The Weiss clan may seem completely detached from one another, but they have yet to accept the disturbing realities of their true connections. Each character has a screamin’ demon to address. Fire. Drugs. FIRE. Depression. Hollywood. Fire. The map to the dark secrets of the Weiss family can be found on the scarred face of Agatha.
Julianne Moore won Best Actress at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for her work in Maps to the Stars, however I don’t buy the performance as one of her all-time best. With that being said, she does, in fact, dominate every scene and drives home Cronenberg’s take on the role of women in Hollywood. Moore shows no fear by shedding her clothes and drifting into the psyche of a fading actress, however beyond the obvious award moments, I found myself thinking more of Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) from David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive; a character that kept me rattled until the bitter end. At some point during the 112 minutes of Map to the Stars, a feeling of apprehension disappeared, and I prepared myself for the next Hollywood zinger (ex. fans who buy celebrity’s excrement).
By the final act, Maps to the Stars takes an interesting turn, and I will surely appreciate the film more after a second viewing (like most Cronenberg films), but a late case of poor VFX reminded that I merely liked the film — I wasn’t floored upon the final frame like Mulholland Drive. With that being said, the collective group of performances are outstanding – well, except John Cusack yelling “you crazy c**t!” Robert Pattinson serves as the calm amongst the storm as limo driver Jerome Fontana, and the hopeful character (based on the writer’s own experiences) reflects young Hollywood’s ability to get close to the action, even if one will never be anything more than a social prop. A character like Agatha was born into fame, while someone like Jerome lives off the energy of possibly entering the sacred hoop. You know, a chance encounter in Beverly Hills that might lead to something bigger. Does sex with an aging Hollywood actress count as something big? For some, that’s the end of the line – a story to retell over and over. Jerome probably deserves better, but it’s seems that he likely won’t find anything to fulfill his creative desires.
I can get behind a film like Maps to the Stars; a story that points a figure back at Hollywood and says “give me a break!” But after two hours, I wasn’t thinking “Cronenberg!” but rather “yeah…Cronenberg.” I’ll take it.