Maps to the StarsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/05/15 14:13:41
Over the years, there have been any number of films satirizing the inner workings of Hollywood moviemaking machine and the weirdos that populate both sides of the camera. Some very good ones have emerged during that time but the problem with a lot of them is that they are made by people who presumably still have to go on working within the industry--in an effort to ensure that they can still go on working, the resulting satire is either so overblown that it just becomes silly or so toothless that not even the most sensitive of artistic souls could possibly take offense. For example, I think that many of us can agree that one of the great comedic minds of our time is Christopher Guest, the man behind such classics as "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," films that have demonstrated a noticeably keen and biting wit. And yet, at two points in his career, he has offered up satirical looks at the film industry, "The Big Picture" and "For Your Consideration" and while both films have their good points (the former has a supporting performance from Martin Short as a manic agent as high-maintenance as his clients ("I'll have a thimbleful of the almond torte") that may be one of the best things he has done on film that you probably haven't seen), neither one ever comes close to hitting the heights Guest is clearly capable of achieving. Therefore, the best Hollywood satires are the ones that have come from either those who are so powerful in the industry that they can say whatever they want and get away with it (as was the case when Billy Wilder made his classic "Sunset Boulevard") or are at such profound odds with the industry that they have nothing to lose by telling it the way they think it is (as is what happened when perennial maverick Robert Altman unloaded on the contemporary studio mentality with "The Player" and unexpectedly scored one of the biggest hits of his career).David Cronenberg is a filmmaker who has never had much use for the Hollywood apparatus--he generally works independently up in Canada, he traffics in material that would never make it through the studio development process and his rare dealings with the big boys, mostly for projects that would never get off the ground, sound as bizarre as anything that he has ever put on the screen (though I must admit that I would have liked to have seen what he would have done with "Basic Instinct 2," which he was signed to do at one point). And yet, those brief encounters must have made some impact on him because his latest film, "Maps to the Stars," is a savage dark comedy about the bleak underbelly of the business called show featuring characters and situations as grotesque as anything that he has depicted before in his decidedly strange filmography.
As the film opens, we are introduced to a group of characters in various positions of power in the film industry. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a therapist and life coach who has written a number of self-help bestsellers bought by the kind of people who will believe even the most inane gibberish if it comes packaged between the pages of a glossy book and is bolstered by endless infomercials. As famous as he is, his celebrity is eclipsed by that of his 13-year-old son Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a child star who hit it big at the age of 9 in the blockbuster "Bad Babysitter," became a monster who eventually wound up in rehab and, now drug-free but as loathsome as ever, is poised for a comeback with the long-awaited "Bad Babysitter II," thanks to a deal negotiated by his momager Christina (Olivia Williams). One of Stafford's clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a deeply neurotic actress and the daughter of a cult star from the Seventies who died long ago in a mysterious house fire. Despite having recently accused her late mother (Sarah Gadon) of sexually molesting her as a child, Havana is still willing to stand in her shadow and is determined to turn around her faltering career by doing a remake of one of her mother's classic films with her playing the part made famous by Mom despite being--charitably--a decade or so too old for the part.
Into this world, fresh from Florida, is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a girl in her late teens who has come to Los Angeles after forging an online friendship with Carrie Fisher. Between her odd demeanor and the burn scars that cover much of her face and body (leading to her always donning long clothes and gloves), Agatha is clearly one who stands out in a crowd and she soon catches the attention of Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor/writer who currently drives a limo to make ends meet and who uses his job as a way to make industry connections and to gain insights that he can then plow into his writings. Meanwhile, Havana is looking for a new personal assistant (or as she puts it, "I need a new chore-whore") and through her own friendship with Carrie Fisher, she agrees to interview Agatha for the job and when she learns about the girl's mysterious burns, she decides that it is fate or karma or something that will lead to her getting her coveted role and hires her. As it turns out, Agatha herself has a role to fill after all and has a dark connection to the Weiss's that, if uncovered, could make even the most heavily Botoxed of eyebrows rise up in shocked surprise.
Although Cronenberg has himself raised plenty of eyebrows (along with gorges and other body parts) over the years with his films--this is the guy who gave us such startling visions as "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch" and "Crash," to name only a few selections from one of the most extraordinary filmographies of the era--"Maps to the Stars" is nevertheless like to throw even his most ardent fans for a bit of a loop right from the start. Over the years, Cronenberg has been fairly steadfast in his determination to keep contemporary popular culture as far away from his work as possible--he has stated that he wants to to control the emotions of his audience as much as possible and by letting outside influences that have their own personal connotations for each individual viewer, he feels he could lose that control. Therefore, unless he is dealing with a situation that requires specific references to specific people, places or things (as was the case with his Freud-Jung face-off "A Dangerous Method"), he has gone to great lengths over the years to leave such things out--no references to other movies, no dialogue seeped in cultural minutiae and hardly any notable song cues on the soundtrack. On the other hand, screenwriter Bruce Wagner is a writer who is as steeped in minutiae as is possible--his books and screenplays are completely of the moment and filled with such details, though it is hard to see how some of his references will hold up over time.
The collaboration of two such distinct perspectives might ordinarily lead to an artistic train wreck but the union of Cronenberg and Wagner here has led to surprisingly effective and provocative results. It is a bit of a shock at first to hear characters in a Cronenberg dropping references to people like Demi Lovato and Emma Watson but after a while, the constant name-dropping takes on the same effect as the technical jargon spouted by the characters in films like "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers"--communicating via celebrity is just the way of the land and after a bit, the references hardly register anymore. Cronenberg also hits upon an interesting method on conveying the solipsistic nature of his characters in cinematic turns by isolating his characters in their own single shots for the majority of the film and only bringing them together in the same shot in order to heighten the impact of key moments. Meanwhile, Wagner keeps up his end of the bargain by providing a screenplay that offers up any number of lurid twists and turns that veer between the expected (such as Agatha's connection to the Weiss family) and the surprising (such as what Benjie does to a minor supporting player on "Bad Babysitter II" who unwisely manages to steal the scene from the star) before arriving at a conclusion that rivals even the nihilistic apocalypse that concluded that other great Hollywood horror show, "The Day of the Locust."
Since "Maps to the Stars" takes its characters through any number of dark and deranged situations that most actors would just as soon avoid if at all possible--there is a scene in which Benjie, desperate to rehabilitate his public image, visits a sick little girl in the hospital and bluntly asks her "How did you get AIDS, Kimmy?" (the punchline, of course, is that she has terminal cancer) and that is one of the milder cruelties in store--Cronenberg has lucked out here by scoring a cast that is uniformly up to the challenge of playing some of the worst people imaginable. For example, Julianne Moore has an absolute blast playing the horrid Havana, the kind of mid-level actress who has risen just high enough in the business to know that she cannot bear to go back to the life of an ordinary person yet also realizes, at least deep down, that she will never get to that next level--the scene in which she reacts to being given some very good news under the most unspeakable of circumstances alone beats the entirety of her award-winning turn in "Still Alice." John Cusack, whose recent streak of half-baked direct-to-video titles has suggested a career path that even Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis might question, is equally good as the smarmy guru whose platitudes about Tibet only barely mask a ruthlessness that he clearly passed on to his son. Among the younger players, Wasikowska, Gadon (who has become a Cronenberg regular over the last few years) and Pattinson (who give a great performance in Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis") are all exceptional and Evan Bird as Benjie somehow manages to find the brief remaining glimmers of humanity in who is otherwise one of the worst human beings ever put on film."Maps to the Stars" is a dark movie and clearly not for everyone--the kind that will make most viewers long for a long and cleansing shower afterwards--but as an antidote to the TMZ-ification of popular culture and as a showcase for some great performances and direction. While it may not be saying anything particularly radical or revolutionary about the subject at hand, it goes about it with equal amounts of horror and humor and if the end result is not top-level Cronenberg--along the lines of "Videodrome," "Crash" or "A Dangerous Method," for example--that only says more about the incredibly high quality of his past efforts than anything else. Besides, any film that includes a scene in which Hollywood royalty is brought down with the assistance of a Genie--the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar--is okay by me.
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