Maps to the Stars is a weird film. Less esoteric than Cosmopolis, more surreal than A History of Violence, colder than Eastern Promises, and, thankfully, better than A Dangerous Method, Maps to the Stars is very much a later-stage Cronenberg film that demonstrates how much he’s matured as a filmmaker since the body horror days, but he still loves to horrify his audiences.
Every character is Maps to the Stars is reprehensible–selfish, self-possessed, neurotic, petty, and false–but Cronenberg still succeeds in making us feel for them as they try to overcome their struggles and lapse back into dramatic meltdowns. Julianne Moore is fabulous (is she ever not?) as the needy, whining, and melodramatic Havana Segrand, who behaves as though life itself is her last grasp at an Oscar. Unable to cope with potentially losing out on a role in the remake of a film that made her mother famous, playing her mother’s character, she blots out haunting hallucinations of her abusive mother with drugs, unfulfilling sex, and weekly sessions with a self-help quack to the stars, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Dr. Weiss’s family is also a shambles, with a monstrously obnoxious child star son (Evan Bird), a cold, distant wife (Olivia Williams), and a schizophrenic daughter (Mia Wasikowska) who returns to L.A. after being mysteriously missing for years.
Havana is such a brutally-narcissistic, emotionally-unstable character that Moore is fascinating to watch. A particularly horrifying scene has her joyfully celebrating the news of a child’s death as she learns that she has netted the part meant for his mother as a result. Unfortunately, this is an ensemble film, and the rest of its characters are not nearly as interesting.
Maps to the Stars suffers from a disjoined and confusing tone, as though it couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a scathing takedown of Hollywood, a ghost story, or a familial drama. It’s all of those things and none at once. The ghosts appear too infrequently for us to really appreciate them as chilling or haunting hallucinations. The familial drama often becomes a distraction from the gripping performances of Moore and newcomer Evan Bird as child star Benjie Weiss. While Cusack is convincing as a pretentious self-help sleazeball, Olivia Williams does little else but stare stone-faced at executives and sob. The Weiss family’s story culminates in a surprise twist that felt a bit like a throwaway, shock value detail, and the film would not have suffered if it was omitted. Robert Pattinson is… well, he’s in the movie.
I enjoy Mia Wasikowska in many films and think she’s a gifted young actress, and she was wonderfully fragile and unsettling as Agatha, but her narrative trajectory seemed weak in comparison to Moore’s spiraling downfall, and, aside from her final, powerfully brutal scene with Moore, I often wished we could take a break from her adventures and get back to the Hollywood elite. Agatha as a character functions as a sympathetic and genuine foil to the phoniness around her, which is important for the sake of narrative balance–but, despite her tragic backstory, I couldn’t find her particularly interesting.
Its portrayal of the industry is where Maps to the Stars really shines. I’d read reviews describing the film as intensely biting and harsh, but I found myself continuously wishing it would be harsher–that the film could simply focus on Moore and Bird–Bird absolutely brings his all as a loathsome, egomaniacal child-star brat of Beiberesque proportions whose spiral back into addiction is as horrifying and sympathetic as Moore’s. Their daily lives are filled with hollow industry talk, meetings with dead-eyed studio execs and producers, meaningless sex and parties with vapid celebrities who humblebrag and namedrop. I wondered throughout if this film reflects Cronenberg’s opinions towards the industry–while I’ve seen him speak at events in Canada a few times, I’ve never heard him express any ill-will towards Hollywood, although this would explain one of the reasons why he has such strong ties to his homeland. Perhaps Cronenberg’s thoughts on Hollywood are just as bizarre and spasmodic as his film.