In the ’80s and ’90s, David Cronenberg built a formidable oeuvre around phenomenal body-horror, from the exploding heads of Scanners, to the full-corpus mutation of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, to the “new flesh” synthesized in Videodrome and eXistenz—not to mention that he directed a commercial for Nike in 1990 called, appropriately enough, “Transformation.” Yet, post-Y2K, Cronenberg has focused more on the horrors under the skin, be it greed (Cosmopolis), or the toxic internalization of some of his favorite topics: sex (A Dangerous Method) and violence (A History of Violence). For Cronenberg’s first film partly shot in Hollywood, Maps to the Stars effortlessly combines that trinity of greed, sex and violence, yet the Hollywood he captures in the process feels less like a real indictment of Tinseltown excess and more an extremist, even obvious glimpse seen through a TMZ lens.
Maps to the Stars is Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s idea of Hollywood as a stratified world of inhabitants existing in various levels of celebrity. Havana Sergrand (Julianne Moore) is an aging actress living in the shadow of her dead mother (Sarah Gadon)—who also occasionally haunts her daughter, literally. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is the Bieberesque star of the Bad Babysitter franchise, fresh out of rehab and ready to offend everyone. Meanwhile, Benjie’s sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is returning to the area for the first time in years, hoping to apologize for her past transgressions, which still resonate within her family, leaving her scarred both emotionally and physically.
Each of our three main stars attempt redemption in a land always looking for the next big thing—yet they are defined by their selfish wants more than their sincere grasps at being better people. Havana wants to play in a biopic about her own abusive mother, yet is passed over by someone younger, despite Havana’s attempts to seduce and sneak her way back to stardom. Benjie wants to leave the drugs behind and not lose the cultural power he adores, yet he’s constantly misguided—see only his first scene, wherein he visits a hospitalized fan with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, asking how she’s doing with her AIDS. Agatha just wants to return, which she does through a Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself). Agatha is tasked with helping the Hollywood veteran with her book—or what could turn into an HBO project. Agatha quickly becomes an assistant (really: chore whore) to Havana and starts a relationship with young actor/limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson).
Though Maps to the Stars ostensibly acts like a biting satire of the entertainment industry and the dangers inherent, it inevitably reveals itself to be a film about children suffering the sins of their parents. Which, perhaps, according to Cronenberg, may be the most trenchant observation he has in taking a look at Hollywood, that its excess and privilege are due to dynastic malfunctions. Each of Cronenberg’s characters are haunted (and, like Havana, literally so) by past mistakes, with issues mostly derived from their predecessors. This is deep-seated awfulness by example: The most tragic examples are in the parents of the Weiss siblings (Olivia Williams and John Cusack), whose actions may have caused the aforementioned “transgressions” of their daughter, which in turn cause them to displace blame and despise her so much.
While Maps to the Stars investigate these familial failings with an odd sort of insight that draws incisive lines between aligning stars, the film can’t seem to nail down a coherent tone. Part teen drama, part ghost story, and part joke set-up without a punchline, Maps never quite excels at any of its formal endeavors. While Cronenberg and long-time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky are able to craft a somewhat consistent visual language—most notably isolating almost every character in his or her frame, rarely allowing one character to interact with another within that frame—Maps to the Stars is easily one of their least attractive films. They’ve pulled astounding beauty out of digital film before, but here they wallow in grime and graininess that rarely serves a purpose besides harking back to some sort of anachronistic Hollywood standard. Then there’s the end of the film: it’s jarring to watch a director with such prowess in effects stoop to one of the most distracting and poorly crafted uses of CGI in recent cinema.
Beyond performances from Moore and Wasikowska that rank among their best (and, for Moore, her most bonkers in quite some time), Maps to the Stars is compelling as a weird statement on one directing stalwart’s experience looking inside the machine that he avoided for so long—like Cronenberg’s Mulholland Dr., but shallower. The plot is confused and aimless, with zany gestures made for seemingly the sake of it. Usually for Cronenberg that can work, but with a story this scattered and toothless, one just wishes he had more to say.
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Bruce Wagner
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Carrie Fisher, Robert Pattinson
Release Date: Feb. 27, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.