Focus Features | R | David Cronenberg
Pictured: She doesn’t carry a gun. She doesn’t join in. She drives.
Scandalous headline: did you know that entitled, overprivileged actors in Hollywood are sometimes vapid, vain, shallow, and even nihilistic? Now, before you crush your pearls in a clutched fury, be assured that David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars will duly reprimand the many wicked creatures in its universe, throughout the film, on a regular basis. Like an extended episode of Extra by way of…well, David Cronenberg, the film takes a gatling gun to minnows in a bucket in order to make occasionally effective but mostly rote observations about the cancerous long-term effects of fame. For a filmmaker whose films are frequently unlike anything viewers have ever watched before, for better or worse, here is one that’s going to seem far, far too familiar.
Maps’ window into the lifestyles of the beautiful and bored is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a semi-disfigured young woman who moves to California in hopes of being nearer the brightest stars. There’s something off about Agatha, but nobody can seem to place it, and other than the arm-length black satin gloves she perpetually wears, she seems like the model assistant. Before long, she’s become the personal assistant for long-tenured starlet Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an emotional wreck who’s attempting to jump-start her career by starring in a “re-imagining” of a film her mother (Sarah Gadon) starred in years ago. The fact that her mother died young, not long after that film was made, only motivates Havana to capture something that her mother couldn’t.
Through Havana, Agatha finds her way into the upper crust of Hollywood, and from there Maps to the Stars unspools its many Cronenbergian perversions and eccentricities. These are found not just with Havana and Agatha, but with the Weiss family, particularly Benjie (Evan Bird), an obnoxious teen star who’s struggling to remain sober as his domineering but concerned mother (Olivia Williams) and high-profiting “spiritual coach” father (John Cusack) milk his fame and fortune. Until the film reveals its larger implications, ones that feel appropriately outré for the characters at hand but unfold to diminishing returns, Maps to the Stars becomes the kind of movie where “It was made for Best Supporting” is expected to earn chortles of recognition and the ghosts of past indiscretions are literal ghosts.
While Maps is probably Cronenberg’s most immediately accessible film since A History of Violence, it’s also unusually simplistic for him. Moore, in particular, gets miles out of a role that’s more caricature than anything; Havana is a true wreck, the kind of woman who dances over news of a rival starlet’s dead child and talks mainly in references to other people she knows. While the film does allow her to lapse into histrionics at points, it’s the most she can do with a character who’s basically a walking neon outline loudly declaring “ACTORS ARE JERKS” in rotating colors. Likewise, Wasikowska brings a vulnerability to Agatha that offsets her usual steely countenance, but gets lost in the shuffle. Cusack, for his part, gives a latter-day Nicolas Cage performance. This is not really a compliment.
Maps talks in constant, deliberately grating references and plays no shortage of inside baseball, but it hardly adds any insights to the condition of the modern millionaire. It aims for satire but lacks a cogent point, wants to achieve high melodrama without the commitment to its own premise, and by its end starts to romanticize the destruction of the entire industry order in a way that plays at radicalism but turns genuinely unpleasant in its fetishization of punishment. It’s fine to fill a movie’s universe with deeply unlikable people; this can be a powerful way to examine the world’s worst traits. But ultimately, Maps to the Stars starts to recall that one kid in high school who talked about wanting dumb celebrities to die because they’re dumb: all bluster, little insight.