Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has a well-documented fascination with seeing social systems disrupted by chaos, whether they be romantic (The Fly), domestic (A History of Violence), psychological (A Dangerous Method), criminal (Eastern Promises), automotive (Crash) or technological (Videodrome, eXistenZ) in nature.
Just as his suffocatingly stilted Cosmopolis set out to skewer the folly of capitalism in a long limo ride across Manhattan, Cronenberg’s latest, Maps to the Stars, seems explicitly crafted to serve as its West Coast counterpart, taking to task the wealthy, self-involved ranks that populate Hollywood. It may not be the sharpest of satires, but perhaps that unruliness is simply a matter of form reflecting content.
“I requested a stretch limo,” Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) points out to her driver upon her arrival in Los Angeles. Of course, since her driver, Jerome, is played by Cosmopolis star Robert Pattinson, we waste no time disappearing down the self-referential rabbit hole. To the dismay of her parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams), Agatha is aiming to reunite with her estranged brother, foul-mouthed tween star Benjie (Evan Bird). In the meantime, she becomes personal assistant to Havana (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged actress eager to play the role her mother made famous in an upcoming remake.
Oh, and did I mention the ghosts? Havana is quite literally haunted by the ghost of her starlet mum (Sarah Gadon) just as Benjie can’t shake the spirit of the dying fan to whom he made empty promises, as if Bruce Wagner’s screenplay didn’t already do enough to fuel these characters’ recurring fears of youthful competition. The inside-baseball jabs tend to feel pretty old hat — Hey, remember when Robert Downey, Jr. went to rehab? How about them Scientologists? — but buried beneath the banter is a damning motif of incest, incorporated as much into the relationships as it is into the industry. (Each character is starring in a sequel or a remake of either a movie or their own lives, meaning that anyone who ever goes on to remake Maps itself might be a genius simply for doing so.)
Cronenberg captures the whole inbred affair with uncharacteristic sunniness and a fittingly phony atmosphere — much of the film was shot in Toronto — while allowing his cast a degree of real-world remove without going so far as to reprise the full-on theatricality of Cosmopolis. Akin to Julianne Hough’s conveniently covered burns in Paradise, Wasikowska gets arm-length gloves and a touch of neck scarring by which to convey an oft-mentioned childhood trauma, but her performance does a fine job of suggesting a lurking unease beneath her chipper exterior. Bird takes well to his character’s advanced cynicism and encroaching panic, doing a dead-on Bieber impersonation at times whether he knows it or not.
Cusack’s blend of cool public guidance and lingering private resentment never quite matches the feverish tone of everyone else, and as for Pattinson, he’s fine in a cursory role, his character existing more to be exploited by others than examined by us. This leaves Moore, whose Cannes win for Best Actress may be overstating things a bit. Nonetheless, she delivers the film’s most consistently, fascinatingly insecure performance, embodying an entire industry’s desperation and determination within the fraying persona of a nearly-there has-been.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that disorder eventually emerges by violent means, although the home stretch leaves one puzzled by the unclear fates of several characters. Maybe it’s too easy to say that Maps gets a little lost in the end, but even then, the film loses itself as only Cronenberg knows how.
The Upside: Julianne Moore’s wonderfully shaky performance; a clever take on endless cinematic regurgitation
The Downside: An often obvious sense of satire; a somewhat sloppy climax
On the Side: The oft-quoted poem in the film, “Liberty,” was written by Paul Éluard.