Although labeled as a Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars is more of an incineration, a nu-Cronenberg examination. Bruce Wagner’s script seems tailor made for the Canadian director, dealing with perverse sex, disfigured flesh, odd characters, and horror currents that undercut the fierce bite of the film’s core. Criticisms of Hollywood are practically their own genre, and it was enthralling to watch how the auteur crafted Maps to the Stars into something completely unique, new, bizarre, and hilarious.
The film presents Hollywood as a vile, disgusting stew, with an ensemble cast providing the grotesque bits and pieces. For all of its blunt thematic weight and clear direction, the plot is surprisingly kinetic, as Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) comes to Los Angeles looking for her parents, while Benjie (Evan Bird) and Havana (Julianne Moore) battle eery encounters with ghosts. It is similar to Cosmopolis in that its plot takes the back seat to the experience, the moment, but it never loses its propulsive thrust, primarily thanks to splendid performances from the entire ensemble. The young Evan Bird is disgustingly effective as the “Bieber-esque” child prodigy, spewing racial slurs and disses with the nonchalant crassness of a seasoned veteran. On the other side of the same coin is Havana Segrand. She enjoys enormous fame, but it’s clear she’s past her prime, fading and aging as the Benjie’s of the world rise and blossom. I haven’t seen Still Alice but I’m sure her work here was equally deserving of an award nod (although Maps‘ acidity surely kept the Academy safely at bay).
John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, and Sarah Gadon, in a bone-chilling role as the ghost of Havana’s mother, are along for the ride, rounding out the hefty ensemble and giving it their all, giving Maps much of its venom. Cronenberg captures the self-absorption, self-importance, and incestuous self-worship with his usual sterile construction – he examines. Moments of laugh-out-loud humor, of which there are many, are almost always understruck by an eeriness that Cronenberg brings out so well. Much of the run time plays out like a soap opera, a melodramatic film within a film, making it feel very much like an odd game. There are many scenes and sequences where I could feel the “camera crew” shooting the actors, with Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky placing their own camera just to the right, or left, capturing this “movie” as it ran along – a glorious, fresh, and unique effect. The pair even shoot it to look like a soap opera, albeit prettier, opting for constant close ups, simple two-shots, and simple framing to heighten the actors’ soggy performances.
And yet, the auteur subverts himself, injecting moments of legitimate pathos and humanity into the fiery brew. It’s an intriguing balance, and it gives the finale a somber, tragic anti-climax flavor that compels. Nonetheless, these injections aren’t enough to overpower the vile and incestuous stench. Maps to the Stars depicts David Cronenberg setting fire to much of Hollywood, its secrets, its incestuous self-love, and its people – during one scene of self-immolation, accentuated by knowingly poor CGI, I could almost hear the director chuckling venomously.