Maps to the Stars Review (2014) | Dir. David Cronenberg
Can't Stop the Movies
4Mar/150

Maps to the Stars (2014)

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David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars presents a semi-sprawling satire of Hollywood, focusing on aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), her enigmatic assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and his wife, and their son, child actor Benji Weiss.

It's available to rent now on Amazon, Google Play, and VUDU.

David Cronenberg's Maps to the StarsKyleDislikeNew

I have generally been a fan of David Cronenberg’s lauded post–A History of Violence shift away from raw sci-fi body horror (which really started with Spider if you want to get picky about it). Aside from Eastern Promises I haven't loved any of these films, but they've all been varying degrees of successful and interesting—those two criteria not always intersecting at the same point on the vertical axis, as with 2012's Cosmopolis. So I came into Maps to the Stars curious, if not altogether enthusiastic, and then added two points for Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska. John Cusack isn't discerning enough in his role choices, so for pre-release anticipation his casting ends up being a zero-sum move.

The results surprised me a little bit—Maps to the Stars may be a better representation of the world it's trying to satirize than any of those involved realized or intended. This is a wonderfully shot, great-looking movie filled with excellent performances at the service of a story designed to suggest depth where none exists. Sprawling casually across three intersecting groups of characters who inhabit various stages of the rickety Hollywood success ladder, writer Bruce Wagner's screenplay has novelistic ambitions—fitting, as the movie is based on his novel Dead Stars, itself supposedly based on earlier versions of the script—but it lacks the patience to develop its characters in any truly meaningful ways. It's a curiosity for a director like David Cronenberg, falling surprisingly flat despite a few inspired moments. Even when discussing his failures, I'd have never imagined Cronenberg capable of “flat.”

Evan Bird as Benji Weiss

Evan Bird plays Benji Weiss as a Bieberesque child star with the douchery turned to 11.

The story opens with three distinct threads that will eventually intersect. A young woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska)—arms and face partially covered in mysterious burn scars of inconsistently-explained origin—arrives in Hollywood doing some work for Carrie Fisher (it's important to mention some real celebrities so the audience feels in on the joke). She eventually crosses paths with actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is desperately vying for the chance to play her dead mother (a famous actress) in an upcoming “art film,” while simultaneously trying to shake off the abusive influence of the latter's (sometimes literal) ghost. We also meet Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack)—a sort of vague TV self-improvement mystic—and his wife, as well as their child-actor son Benji, who bears a not-insignificant resemblance to Justin Beiber around the mid-point of his Disney-to-douchebag transformation cycle, and who's getting ready to ramp up production on the sequel to his star-making film Bad Babysitter.

When we first meet Benji Weiss, he's visiting the hospital room of a sick girl who tells him she loved his movie, that she thought he was so funny in it, and he replies by giving her the worldwide gross: “We did $780 million worldwide—people don't realize that.” When he discovers that she doesn't have an iPad, he tells his assistant to get her one, making sure to specify “a mini.”

For awhile the film jumps around through scenes like this one, establishing well-known celebrity tropes—the child actor turned spoiled monster, the aging actress being cast aside by the establishment, opportunistic drivers and assistants who are all “working on a screenplay”—only to skewer them. And at times Maps to the Stars can tow an impressive line between being brutally cutting and very funny, as in scenes where Cusack's Dr. Stafford Weiss talks to Moore about “accessing her inner 'magical child'” and then reduces her to hyperventilating and sobbing, forcing her to relive childhood trauma through some sort of massage-based psychotherapy.

Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars

Julianne Moore navigates between varying levels of pitiful, child-like self-absorption and pathological desperation so deftly it's a shame the movie didn't focus solely on her character.

I love satire that commits to so completely and accurately reflecting the objects of its criticism that it nearly salts the earth—but the representations here are also cliches at this point. No one is surprised by the shallowness of Hollywood or the ruthless opportunism that motivates such lifestyles, so with nothing else underneath the characters—with no details to genuinely illuminate the various traumas being repressed—the satire quickly becomes lazy. By the time a key connection between two characters is revealed, the movie is nearly halfway over, and we're already sinking into boredom from the repetitive and easy digs against celebrity. Later, by the time a character unearths a buried family secret that should throw certain relationships into stark relief, the film has wasted its chance to create a context for this revelation to matter—surely it has deep and painful significance for those involved, but we're not involved.

This last act also has the habit of abruptly ratcheting up the pace out of nowhere, jumping from plot point to plot point with a speed a better movie may be able to maintain, but Maps to the Stars doesn't earn our investment in the plot, so there is nothing to bridge our interest from one moment to the next. Cronenberg should have had the courage to commit to full-blown narrative disconnect a la Cosmopolis, the floating episodic structure of which may have allowed the Hollywood cliches and character stereotypes here to operate more mythically, detached from the need for a deeper narrative. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner wants these characters to serve as representations of trauma in different stages and manifestations, but rooting them in a script that demands our attentions primarily on the superficial is a miscalculation.

For this reason Cronenberg doesn't deserve all the blame here, but he deserves the lion's share of it. Much of the time he doesn't seem to have a grasp on why the characters are doing what they're doing. The editing is also frequently jarring and awkward—jumping back and forth between speakers with a rhythm that controls the conversation rather than vice versa. There is a scene late in the movie where someone burns to death beside a pool, and it's rendered unintentionally hilarious through its basic construction, which confuses the audience as to what exactly is happening by focusing on Cusack bumbling around directionless in a panic.

Mia Wasikowska and John Cusack in Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars is never boring to look at, but even Wasikowska and Cusack seem kind of adrift in their own characters.

Julianne Moore also has to be mentioned here. She had an oddly fortunate go last year with two great performances in mediocre films—this one and Still Alice. Whereas that film lacked the courage to represent her slide into Alzheimer's internally but still provided a solid structure within which to situate her performance, Maps to the Stars inhabits Segrand's mental space without inhibition—complete with flashbacks and hallucinations—but can't give her a context from which to grow into a fully three-dimensional character. Through no fault of her own—the performance is fearless—she remains a caricature.

Maps to the Stars ends up being an ironic title because the movie is essentially without an internal compass. Various characters intersect in deliberate arcs that suggest mounting conflicts; motifs centering on fire and abuse are repeated purposefully almost as if they're narrative mantras—but in the end they build to something less than whole. Even now I'm not sure how exactly we ended up at the final scene, or why it matters. Cronenberg has started doing interesting things with the methods and effects of repression over the past 15 years—and the role of the body in these recent films is not as disconnected from his earlier filmography as people often claim—but this one doesn't work.

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Maps to the Stars PosterMaps to the Stars (2014)

Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay written by Bruce Wagner.
Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska,
John Cusack, and Robert Pattinson.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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