When David Cronenberg’s latest film Maps To The Stars was released in the UK, way back in the dark, shortened days before the end of 2014, it was interesting to note how many of its cast members keenly reinforced the movie’s overt theme during the press junket: namely that being an actor and existing/living for a number of years in Tinseltown will test the mental mettle of just about anybody. ‘The longer you live the Hollywood lifestyle, the more empty you become’ a typically frank Julianne Moore told the Guardian, while co-star John Cusack suggested ‘Hollywood is a whorehouse and people go mad’. That’s not particularly surprising, but the catching of this ‘madness’ and emptiness is the main concern of Cronenberg’s latest, a bitter pill of a film that attempts to accentuate and expose the already-accentuated and over-exposed, yet which does so with a dark, wry approach that is hard to resist.
Here Bruce Wagner’s attractive, blackly-comic screenplay makes Los Angeles look like one of the least desirable places in the world to live; it’s a city brimming with neurotic, dysfunctional, permanently-scarred individuals (both mentally and physically) who are desperate to secure their own legacies and who are constantly threatened by rivals within – or even on the periphery of – the industry. There’s no out-and-out lead but Moore makes the biggest impression as a famous actress by the name of Havana Segrand, a star who is haunted by recurring apparitions of her late mother Clarice (Sarah Gadon) and damaged as a result of their abusive relationship. It’s never quite clear whether that abuse is a figment of Havana’s own imagination or not, but either way it has allowed the desperate actress to jump-start her own flagging career, and she routinely discusses the subject on talk shows while, rather weirdly, she is trying to secure the same part in a remake of the film that originally starred her mother.
Havana lives in an Old Hollywood style mansion, while over in a modern, icily minimalist condo John Cusack plays her creepy new age therapist Stafford, himself something of a media ‘sleb’ (big enough to enjoy repeat visits to Oprah‘s couch, anyway), and married to Olivia Williams’ troubled Cristina; this particular family has a dark secret of their own, knowledge of which has understandably affected their child star son Benjie (an enjoyably wicked turn by Evan Bird as a 13-year-old Bieber-esque brat just out of rehab) and estranged daughter/aspiring writer Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives from Florida at the beginning of the film and ends up working for Havana as a PA, or ‘chore whore’. Other characters, such as Robert Pattinson’s wannabe actor and limo driver – a nod to his earlier role in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis – are firmly secondary concerns but generally serve to reinforce the exaggerated notion that Hollywood is overflowing with opportunistic, disloyal careerists.
It’s probably Cronenberg’s best film since the terrific Eastern Promises, and although such acerbic, sideways bites at the hand that feeds are nothing new, it’s unsurprising that the Canadian was attracted by the venomous barbs of Wagner’s script, and it feels as if he has relished making this attack on the great and good of Beverly Hills and Hollywood (the first time he has shot in the US, as it happens). Occasionally it is a little scrappy, like an excessively-melodramatic soap opera with several long-running plot threads that are simultaneously drawing to a close, but at least there are interesting themes and symbols linking the various plights of the unlikable characters: fire, water, ghosts, drugs, premature death and incest, most obviously, but they’re also connected in subtler ways; there are several droll comments on the use of Tibetan Buddhism as a fashion statement, for example, while quotations from Paul Éluard’s poem Liberté appear sporadically. There are moments of irony that may induce ripples of laughter (a character being bludgeoned to death by an award statuette being one that stands out) and the strand of paranormal activity goes some way towards informing the cold, creepy atmosphere, though I should point out that Maps To The Stars isn’t a scary movie. It’s a hard film to love, though, simply because there isn’t a single pleasant character in it. A few do elicit some sympathy and the cast’s work can easily be admired nonetheless, with Moore impressing as always; though a work of fiction there are ties to reality via some sporadic name-dropping and a brief cameo by Carrie Fisher, playing herself.
Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: Bruce Wagner.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon.
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
Editing: Ronald Sanders.
Music: Howard Shore.
Running Time: 109 minutes.