Maps to the Stars
2014, R, 111 min. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Feb. 27, 2015
Like a pesky cockroach evading your every attempt to squash it, it’s hard to pin down the recent cinema of David Cronenberg. Once the master of squeamish body horror and existential dread, his output as of late has veered from historical drama (A Dangerous Method) to dense literary adaptation (Cosmopolis) – the director following his delightfully perverse muse wherever it takes him. This latest film is ostensibly a salvo aimed at Hollywood, but, ultimately, it rests quite comfortably in the realm of Greek tragedy, dealing in incest, ghosts, and devastating family secrets. It should be noted that Maps to the Stars is also supremely creepy and really funny.
The film opens with Agatha (Wasikowska, immediately portentous with her femme-fatale haircut) arriving by bus in Los Angeles. A burn victim from a mysterious fire who covers her scars with opera gloves, she meets Jerome (Pattinson, correctly blank) a limo driver/aspiring actor, just one more Hollywood archetype in the margins of the dream factory. Agatha soon becomes the personal assistant (“chore whore”) to Havana Segrand (Moore), a washed-up actress desperately trying to stay in the game. The daughter of a movie star who died young (in a fire, natch), Havana is jockeying for the role that made her mother a star, in a remake of her classic film. Layer on to that the fact that Havana’s movie-star mom sexually abused her as a child and has started reappearing in her life, and the phrase “mommy issues” catapults to new dimensions (or you could blame the meds). Also circling Agatha’s orbit are her estranged parents, Stafford (Cusack), a domineering celebrity therapist with an impending book tour, and his wife, Christina (Williams), who spends her time managing the career of their son (and Agatha’s brother) Benjie (Bird), a popular child actor whose recent drug scandal (at age 13), has put his hit film franchise, Bad Babysitter, in jeopardy.
Screenwriter Bruce Wagner (who's been skillfully dissecting Hollywood misfits high and low since his 1991 novel, Force Majeure) has crafted a darkly humorous moral fable that Cronenberg embraces with unabashed glee. Moore looks like she’s having a blast playing a bat-shit crazy diva, and Evan Bird deserves singling out for his deadpan yet nuanced performance of a kid who has grown up way too fast. This is a film that grants no quarter, envisioning Hollywood as an ugly, empty world where everyone’s destruction is just a tabloid tip away. They are all yearning to escape from their past, their present, and finally, themselves. One of the through lines of the film is Surrealist poet Paul Éluard’s poem “Liberté,” which is repeatedly recited throughout the film and becomes a mantra for many of the characters. Thousands of copies of that poem were dropped into France by British aircraft during the Nazi occupation in 1942. Leave it to Wagner and Cronenberg to make the connection. Hollywood is hell.