Surreal and often grotesque, David Cronenberg’s film Maps to the Stars (2014) attempts to merge a satire of the film industry with a riff on haunted Hollywood. The title, with its double meaning, suggests a cartography that might pinpoint the connections between larger-than-life screen avatars and the mythological figuration our culture has lent to them.
Maps to the Stars presents a large stage then for its host of strange characters to play upon. Center stage is the (ironically-named) Weiss family. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a TV psychologist who manipulates his celebrity patients with psychobabble quackery. He’s emotionally-estranged from his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage-mother to their son Benjie (Evan Bird), an improbably gangly teen heartthrob trying to get his film career back on track after a stint in drug rehab. The Weiss family finds their not-so-blissful life terribly disrupted when daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up again after years in a mental hospital. She’s a schizophrenic with pyromaniac tendencies. Meanwhile, aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) pines for a role playing her own mother’s role in a remake of a film called Stolen Waters. Segrand resents that her mother’s fame exceeds her own. Alleging that she was sexually abused by her mother as a child, Segrand receives treatment (in her lingerie) from Dr. Weiss. Agatha eventually takes a job as Segrand’s “chore whore,” more firmly linking the two plots. There’s also a limo driver named Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison), who wants to both write and act in Hollywood. Oh, and a bunch of ghosts.
The various plot points double and triple each other: actors hope to gain coveted roles, family members hope to convert their pain into love and forgiveness, people try to escape their past. The film kneads themes of child predation, infanticide, ageism, Hollywood-as-vampirism, and incest into the plot, along with fire and water motifs. Throughout, characters repeat lines from Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem Liberté, as if the mantra’s force might grant them liberty from all these evils.
Cronenberg’s keen visual sensibilities are a highlight of Maps to the Stars. The film sparkles with a glossy Pop Art appeal which Cronenberg delights in griming up with occasional Cronenbergian touches. Still, Maps to the Stars, while thoroughly thematically abject, is not Cronenberg’s most visually Cronenbergian film.
The performances are very Cronenbergian though—stylized, affected, warped, weird. Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore are particularly good, and John Cusack leans into his role with unexpected menace. As surreal as these characters are though, there’s a ballast of reality underneath—sometimes and ultra-real reality, as when Carrie Fisher, daughter of a famous actress, plays her self in a bit role. The whole affect is unnerving.
Maps to the Star’s unnerving tone generates in part from its divergent trajectories. The film strives to be both a biting satire of Hollywood and a familial drama with mythological undertones. There’s no reason that these trajectories might intertwine successfully, but they don’t in Maps to the Stars. The tonal elements never fully cohere, and the plot careens to its climax with a pace that upsets the film’s earlier mood of slow-burning menace. The rushed ending is probably the worst part about Maps to the Stars. There’s plenty of promise in its first hour that the last 45 minutes fails to deliver. The film might have made a better limited series, even, giving Cronenberg more time to weave the threads together.
Bruce Wagner, who wrote Maps to the Stars‘ screenplay, found more room to expand in his 2012 novel Dead Stars, which ran just over 650 pages in paperback. Wagner’s novel predates the film, and is based at least in part on an earlier version of the screenplay for Maps to the Stars. (This is all a bit confusing, I know). In interviews, Wagner has rejected critics’ characterization of Maps to the Stars as a satire, declaring it rather an elegiac family melodrama. (Cronenberg himself didn’t outright reject the idea that the film was satirical though). While it’s unlikely that Wagner is being disingenuous when he claims Maps to the Stars isn’t satirical, he and Cronenberg have nevertheless produced a satire—yet one that strives to be an elegiac family melodrama, and also a take on the old haunted Hollywood stuff. And yet all this material feels pretty hollow.
The specters and doppelgangers haunting the background of Maps to the Stars remain disappointingly underexplored by the film’s end. Worse, the film suffers from a comparison to David Lynch’s far superior Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s film is richer and more expansive, evoking more with far less.
Maps to the Stars also suffers from comparison to Cronenberg’s earlier work, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1985), and Dead Ringers (1988). In the 2000s, Cronenberg delivered a particularly strong one-two punch with a pair of his most perfect films, both starring Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). The magic with Mortensen seemed to wear off in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg’s next film Cosmopolis (a 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel) was, in my estimation, unwatchable. While I think Maps to the Stars is stronger than the last two efforts, it does seem to point to a late-career slump. Here’s to hoping the next Cronenberg joint is a better deal, like the far-superior satire eXistenZ (1999) which he wrote himself. Maybe he should write the next one himself too.
How I watched it: I put it on a few nights ago on a big TV via a streaming service, late at night after a few tumblers of scotch, thinking, “Oh hey, I never watched this” but that turned out to be a false start. Rewatched on an iPad in bed with headphones in two sittings, very late at night.