'Maps to the Stars'
Hollywood is one of the easiest cultures to satirize, which is why it seemed so interesting that David Cronenberg of all people would want to take a crack at it. Surely he’d have some sort of twisted, horrific and psychosexual take on La-La-land that would be worthy of one more scrape from the bottom of the barrel, right? Sadly not. It’s just more of the same, only by a director who isn’t particularly good at comedy.
The script has existed for years, and while the name-checks have been updated, the targets are no less dusty. Julianne Moore headlines a group of Hollywood weirdoes and nutballs, playing a plastic surgery-scarred aging starlet who was born into Hollywood legacy, so lives only for fame, gossip, and using both of those things to crush others. John Cusack is the latest empty promise L.A. guru, who likes to combine messages with tearful therapy sessions. Evan Bird plays a child star (and Cusack’s son) who’s coming out of a drug scandal and desperately attempting to rebuild his career at 13. Robert Pattinson plays a semi-creepy, mostly dull limo driver with dreams of screenwriting. (Why is he Cronenberg’s new star? Why?!) And Mia Wasikowska plays a mysterious celebrity-obsessed outsider with a body covered in burn scars who comes to L.A. and floats into everyone else’s life, eventually bringing out all of their dirtiest little secrets (some of which are literalized by ghosts because… whatever).
The biggest problem with ‘Maps to the Stars’ is that even if the script were actually witty or insightful, Cronenberg is absolutely the wrong director for the material. His desire to leave behind his genre roots and embrace his fully engorged art house pretensions has been disappointing, yet understandable. He’s always been an intellectual; he just happened to be an intellectual with a taste for horror and the fantastic, which made for an intriguing mix. The first batches of perverse art house fare from the director, such as ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Crash’, were fascinating. Now he keeps trying new genres and not quite meshing with them, even though the attempt is admirable.
Cronenberg shoots this film in such a dry and detached manner (with no actor ever cuing up one of the jokes in the script) that it’s hard to tell why he ever wanted to make a showbiz satire. His interest seems to be purely in his bitter distaste for the characters, so he piles bile onto a script that was already trying too hard to subvert. What he’s made is a furiously angry movie with little purpose. It’s certainly not funny, nor are any of the characters compelling enough for their tortured lives to be remotely moving. It’s just a bunch of alienating, unfocused anger about Hollywood that never feels fun or shocking enough to be worth the effort.
That’s particularly unfortunate since Cronenberg’s prestige clearly brought him any actor he wished, and they all came to play. Cusack does his best in an underwritten role. Wasikowska is mesmerizing in moments, and even Pattinson is watchable. Best of all, of course, is Julianne Moore, who commits so fully and heartbreakingly to her washed-up starlet that the performance can be physically difficult to watch. She already won the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for her work and is easily the best part of the movie. (She even scores the only real laugh, when Carrie Fisher pops up to winkingly acknowledge how similar they are.) Unfortunately, that’s the best that can really be said about the movie.
Sometimes scripts passed around for years should never be made, and this was clearly one of those. That Cronenberg was even interested is an inexplicable mystery. His ear for this brand of satirical comedy is tone deaf. Even when the last act of the movie transitions into the type of psychosexual nightmare he’s known for, something feels off.
‘Maps to the Stars’ is never creepy enough, funny enough, poignant enough or insightful enough to justify its existence (and let’s not even speak of one of the worst digital effects shots ever used in a major film). It’s ultimately a failed experiment from a director testing the limits of his range. Hopefully, Cronenberg can recognize that this type of movie was perhaps out of his grasp and will retreat to more comfortable ground next time.