Asking David Cronenberg what he thinks about Hollywood, perhaps in casual conversation at something low key like a gallery opening or a gene splicing convention, will inevitably led to a much shorter chat than ever before thanks to Maps to the Stars. Cronenberg’s latest is a thorough upbraiding of the Hollywood ecosystem, from bottom feeders all the way to the upper echelons of franchise-starting child stars. Yet, despite a strong and clever first half, Maps to the Stars soon crumbles into ham-fisted and obvious observations that are more laughable than powerful.
Cronenberg’s Hollywood – at least, the Hollywood of Maps to the Stars – is a twisted, gnarled, insider-y environment populated by crazy people (often literally crazy people) who have little regard for human decency or kindness. Plopped in the middle of this madness is the slow-speaking and scarred Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives in Southern California with a put-on wide-eyed manner that barely conceals the truth: she’s not an outsider, not at all.
Agatha tells her hired driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson) that she’s in town to see the sights, maybe get a job, hang out with family, and connect with her Twitter pal Carrie Fisher (yes, actual Carrie Fisher). Jerome doesn’t know what to make of her – and, frankly, neither do we – and Pattinson effectively slips back into Cronenberg’s world with a wink and nod. Jerome is the film’s most down-to-earth character (which still isn’t saying much), and the actor again proves that he and Cronenberg are a strong fit, perhaps the best match in the entire feature.
As Agatha awkwardly stumbles her way around Hollywood (and Jerome), the film checks in on other, seemingly loosely connected storylines. There’s Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), the star of a blossoming teen-centric franchise called I Was a Bad Babysitter (self-explanatory) who doesn’t yet have a driver’s license but has already been to rehab, his stage mom Christina (Olivia Williams, the most underused talent of the film), and his father Stafford (John Cusack), a new wave-y therapist who treats Hollywood’s elite by talking at them until they cry.
Stafford, in turn, treats Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, who is excellent), a fading Hollywood starlet desperate to rise back up and overcome a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her now-dead mother (played in flashbacks by Sarah Gadon). Havana is immature, petulant, and potentially loosely based on a gossip-heavy concept of what Lindsay Lohan might be like in a few years. She also knows Carrie Fisher (again, played by actual Carrie Fisher) and she’s in need of a new assistant. Hello, Agatha.
The actual connections between Agatha, the Weiss family, and Havana are far more complicated – yet, also bizarrely obvious – than the film initially lets on, and though those twists form a large part of the narrative of the film, they’re actually some of its weakest material. (Additional revelations as to how Agatha got her scars and where she’s been for her teen years are similarly presented as big, important plot movements that are both obvious and contrived.) Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner are going after Hollywood here, and Maps to the Stars is at its very best during its flinty, funny first act, one that plays up just how ridiculous Tinseltown really is, especially to the uninitiated. Moore throws herself into Havana, a dimming (and dim) star who can’t let go of the past (and her mother) no matter how hard she tries (it’s not just the family troubles that plague her, Havana is also hellbent on starring in a remake of the film that made her mother a star). Her grasping, unaware nature is a perfect illumination of what Cronenberg and Wagner struggle to say throughout the entire film, and Moore masterfully attacks the material.
Yet, Cronenberg and Wagner aren’t content to use seemingly everyday Hollywood life to shine a light on the industry, and even Benjie screaming racist and sexist epithets at his agent and Havana literally dancing over the death of a child that helps her land a new role aren’t harsh enough mirrors. Agatha’s (re)introduction to Hollywood society is meant to upend everything, but the choices the film makes in order to do that are so bizarre, so over the top, and so ludicrous that it dilutes the power of what Maps managed to so clearly express early on.
Here’s how dead-on Maps to the Stars is: when Agatha takes Jerome to see a burnt down house – obviously her old home, obviously – the foundation sits just below the Hollywood sign. The house is literally located under the Hollywood sign. That’s Maps to the Stars in a rote, amateur nutshell. Maps to the Stars aims for searing (and given its preoccupation with fire, often flaming) insight – Hollywood is bad, destructive, and literally incestuous! – but is delivered in such an overwrought manner, one that goes wildly off course throughout the film’s final hour, that it’s impossible to take seriously (frankly, it’s also hard to take comically, because Wagner and Cronenberg are working with such distasteful material here). Stay for the first hour, then fall right off this Map.
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