David Cronenberg’s dark, strange and lively trip to Hollywood
M aps to the Stars is a kind of half- zonked Hollywood exposé. It’s also a tumultuous ghost story set in the bizarro here and now of contemporary SoCal. Plus, it’s a semi-gothic psychodrama. And, by no means least of all, it’s directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, A History of Violence, etc.).
All in all, it’s a messy proposition, but one that exercises a livelier fascination than you’d perhaps expect from that luridly overloaded list of ingredients. If the whole of Maps to the Stars comes off as less than the sum of its parts, there’s still a good deal to be said on behalf of most, if not all, of its blatantly peculiar parts.
Crucial among those parts, as it turns out, are the actors and the characters they play. I haven’t already mentioned the film’s intriguing cast (Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, etc.) in part because Maps to the Stars is not an actor-driven vehicle, but rather a director-driven spectacle in which the actors’ most crucial contributions are mostly a matter of what they are able to bring to whatever challenges the film and its script (by novelist Bruce Wagner) have thrown at them.
The challenges in this case are mostly a matter of bringing some modicum of recognizably human substance to roles that, in synopsis at least, are little more than sketchy, simplistic caricatures. And in this case, the challenge is taken to an almost impossible extreme by wildly overdetermined plotting. Maps is overrun with incestuous relationships; catastrophic fires; ghostly, parallel dreams and nightmares.
The ridiculous plotting might be taken as another aspect of the satire—as a deliriously dark-humored caricature of Hollywood-centric relationship dramas and contemporary melodrama. But this dark comedy is at its sharpest when it’s addressing targets that are a little more specific and individualized.
Havana Segrand (Moore), a troubled star whose career is in crisis, is a semi-hysterical study in the pathology of a professional narcissist. Moore’s performance can’t help but be uneven here, but she has several first-rate moments.
Dr. Stafford Weiss (Cusack), therapist/ guru to Moore’s character and father of two spectacularly strange children, is a deadpan study in the passive-aggressive sadism of a new age savant. It’s a “down” performance, but the cumulative effect is fierce.
Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska), an apparent new arrival in Hollywood, is a quirky and increasingly conflicted aspirant to Tinseltown status. As her highly fraught connections to the other main characters begin to emerge, her weirdly placid Mona Lisa-like smile becomes the film’s chief emblem of corrupted innocence. Young Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is a brilliant rendition of the child star as demented commodity and arrogant monster.