You have to hand it to David Cronenberg. He is uniquely himself when he’s at his best (Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch), his worst (Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method), his most derivative (Eastern Promises) and his delightfully nastiest (Shivers, Crash, A History of Violence). The characters speak eloquently and precisely; the camera moves fluidly but never rushes, and there are shocking bursts of horrific violence.
All of those things are true of Maps to the Stars. It’s an odd hybrid of Cronenberg’s earlier work in terms of shocking subject matter; like Dead Ringers, it hinges on a skewed family dynamic (and incest). Like his later work, it’s content to be stilted, as if Cronenberg’s deliberate pacing needs to be slowed down even more so that the actors sometimes look as though they’re waiting for the camera to catch up with them.
Maps to the Stars is a nasty little film—and though I use “little” a little pejoratively, it’s better than his last three. If only it weren’t about Hollywood, but we can’t have it all, can we?
Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska, less irritating than normal) arrives in Los Angeles to be chauffeured by Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, quite good), an aspiring actor moonlighting as a limo driver. Agatha’s 13-year-old brother Benjie (Evan Bird) is a recovering addict and fading child star. Agatha’s parents, Stafford and Christina (John Cusack and Olivia Williams), are trying to protect Benjie from Agatha, who tried to drug him and kill him in a fire. (She ended up burning herself and spending years in a psych ward.)
There’s also Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who gives Agatha an assistant job as a favor to Carrie Fisher (yes, playing herself), while Havana is desperately trying to get an acting role playing her mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon), in a new movie.
If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. Throw in the fact that most of the characters are haunted by the dead, and it gets even more bizarre.
In the end, Maps to the Stars is harder to grasp than Videodrome or Naked Lunch, and like those two films it demands repeat viewings. The problem is that Maps to the Stars at times is so unappealing—which is a feat for a guy who directed a movie about twin drug-addict gynecologists—you may never want to view it again. Do you really want to watch a movie twice in which one of the lead characters rejoices in the death of a 4-year-old and another tries to choke out a 7-year-old?
Maybe. Maybe you do. Maybe I do. Maps to the Stars is just puzzling enough and acted with enough conviction that some of its more unpleasant aspects—incest, savage strangulations, actors—may be worth a surgical removal of feelings and a return trip to the cinema. It helps that Cusack is better than he’s been in years, and Bird is spectacular. There’s a problem, story-wise, with Pattinson’s character—he exists to move the plot and then disappears when he’s not needed—but with all the other things going on here, the vanishing driver gets lost in the shuffle. Maps to the Stars is confounding and off-putting—but damn it if I don’t want to see it again.
MAPS TO THE STARS
Directed by David Cronenberg
With Moore, Cusack and Wasikowska