It takes a while when watching a new David Cronenberg film to get onto the film’s wavelength. Such is the case with Maps to the Stars, which is too morbid to be a straight satire and too bizarre to be a conventional drama. The characters are disgusting creations, more narcissistic mannequins than relatable human beings. They are petty and vain and pretend to be loving, caring human beings when actually they celebrate each others’ failures and are blind to what a normal life is like. This is the emptiness of the Hollywood lifestyle, filled with aging award winners and drug-addicted child stars. That Hollywood is destructive isn’t a new point for a film to make, but few films have explored that idea with as much gusto and complexity as Maps to the Stars.
The film follows multiple characters in the Hollywood Hills area, chief among them Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha, a young naïf visiting from Florida to see how Hollywood life will suit her, and Evan Bird’s Benjie, a child star already struggling with addiction at the ripe old age of 13. Then there are Benjie’s parents, Christina (Olivia Williams) and Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Christina is the prototypical mom of a child star, doting on her son and manipulating his career to achieve maximum success, and Stafford is one of those pseudo-spiritual gurus who help rich celebrities find inner peace by selling a 12-part book series and $1000 therapy sessions. There’s also the aging actress, Havana (Julianne Moore), trying to recapture glory by starring in a remake of the film that made her mother a star, and Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer making ends meet as a chauffeur.
Of course, none of these characters are what they seem, save Pattinson’s Jerome, who is presented as something of a rube as the film progresses. He is constantly used by other characters in their power games and he fuels the engine of Hollywood by aspiring to its false dreams. Maps to the Stars is constantly attacking the vanity and hollowness of Hollywood, but without the broad caricatures you’d expect of such a satire. Its characters are big and outlandish, but that seems to be the way of Hollywood players in real life. They wrestle with demons and are prey to the machinations of the system even as they fuel it with their desires. These are tortured people, and Cronenberg treats them seriously, even if he never shies away from the fact that they’re despicable human beings. He even offers them a bit of sympathy in the midst of attacking the egotism they stand for.
A good point of reference for Maps to the Stars would be Robert Altman’s The Player, another film that attacks the Hollywood system from the inside out. Like Altman, Cronenberg has always been a Hollywood outlier, working with big talent but never taking that big payday. (It’s also notable that this marks Cronenberg’s first film shot in the United States—you could never have a film that attacks Hollywood without shooting on the famous boulevard and in the hills overlooking the city.) This critical distance (from the industry, not the location) gives Cronenberg the keen eye and honesty needed to take account of Hollywood’s flaws. He doesn’t have to fear ruining a big Hollywood contract so he needn’t soften his blows.
In fact, Cronenberg has always been a director who favours a critical distance. He’s cold and clinical. He doesn’t compose scenes like other directors. He often visually isolates his characters in the frame in meticulous medium shots. There’s a scene where Wasikowska’s Agatha sits down with Williams’s Christina in Christina’s designer home and the isolation of the characters in their own frames makes it seem like there’s a chasm between them. Cronenberg also shrinks down the sound design to create a bubble, where the background noise is absent, making us all the more aware of what the characters are saying, and how unnatural it feels.
In this case, Cronenberg’s antirealism forces us to confront the conflicting nature of Hollywood itself. The bizarre lifestyle of the Hollywood elite—all forced gaiety and disgusting selfishness—looks fake to the rest of the human race, but that lifestyle evidently seems perfectly natural to those in the movie world. (Wonderland makes perfect sense to its inhabitants, even if it baffles Alice.) How can a fake movie show the truth of its characters’ fakeness?
That’s the task Maps to the Stars takes on and it succeeds spectacularly, even if it comes to no easy answers. Maps to the Stars may shock and revolt some viewers through its characters’ despicable behaviours, or it may turn off some viewers due to Cronenberg’s detached perspective, but its power lingers in the viewer’s mind long after its credits roll. It shows that Hollywood is a monstrous machine, but that it’s a human machine, one as equally worthy of pity as disgust.
8 out of 10
Maps to the Stars (2014, Canada/US)
Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Bruce Wagner based on his story; starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Evan Bird, and Robert Pattinson.