Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Prior to watching Maps to the Stars, my experience with David Cronenberg was limited to two and a half of his films. At an early age, I had heard about Videodrome from a friend’s dad who said it was “bizarre,” and “banned.” Which to a 12-year-old kid makes for a perfect storm of temptation. I wasn’t able to watch the film until I had reached college when it popped up on Netflix for a short period of time. After that, I was able to experience part of Scanners when the Criterion collection was still available on Hulu. I’m not too sure why I never finished that one. A few years ago I was fortunate to watch Naked Lunch while it was on HBO. All three of these films, combined with what I knew about 1986’s The Fly had created this image of the type of film Cronenberg would always make. I was pleasantly surprised when Maps to the Stars ended and from start, to finish, the entire film played more like a dysfunctional family drama than the grotesque perversion that his other films are known for.
Maps to the Stars has an amazing cast. Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha Weiss, a girl covered with burns who travels to Hollywood to tour the town. Because of a connection with Carrie Fisher on Twitter, Agatha is able to secure a job working for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a popular actress in Hollywood, as a personal assistant. John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, Havana’s life coach/therapist. His son Benjie is played by the surprisingly talented Evan Bird, and his wife, Christina, is played by Olivia Williams. In Hollywood, Agatha meets a chauffeur/writer/actor named Jerome (played by Robert Pattinson). During her time in Hollywood, Agatha and Jerome grow close as they are both individuals on the outside looking in at stardom. While Havana, Benjie, Stafford, and Christina are on the inside of Hollywood, completely ignorant to those below them.
The biggest issue with Maps to the Stars is how it tries to balance satirizing Hollywood, a story about a dysfunctional family, and an oddly paced ghost story. Sometimes the satire manages to hit home, especially in the way Julianne Moore portrays Havana. Surprisingly, even though I was caught off guard by Moore’s portrayal of a stereotypical Hollywood Diva, it eventually grew on me, and I found her performance to be the best out of the entire film. A lot of the satire in the film felt dated. There were several mentions of AIDS throughout the film and Cusack’s health, prosperity, new-age therapy, wisdom feels awkward for 2017. Benjie even feels more like a Macaulay Culkin type, who has ceased to be relevant in today’s Hollywood. These references may be better received in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. It’s Moore’s character that still feels relevant today since it’s not difficult to imagine actresses being diva’s yesterday, today, or in the future.
The other awkward, and somewhat frustrating, aspect of the film is the inclusion of the ghost story. It’s the one part of the film that somehow managed to feel very relevant to the film while also not making any sort of impact on the story. At first Moore’s character is plagued by images of her dead mother taunting her, and challenging everything she believes. It isn’t difficult to imagine that with all the drugs and stress Havana puts on herself that she might be having hallucinations of her mother as she pines to be cast in a remake of a film her mother starred in before dying. Then Benjie starts to see ghosts. At first, he just sees the ghost of a little girl he visited in the hospital, but then he sees her ghost and the ghost of a little boy he had never met before. It’s one of the odd aspects of the film that reminds you that this is still a Cronenberg film. It is never explained why these two characters are seeing ghosts, and throughout the film, it continues to build and build to an unsatisfying climax.
In the midst of these stranger things, the film does an excellent job of examining the effects of Hollywood on people with different proximities to the industry. Agatha still has a wide eyed hope about Hollywood, Jerome is a bit of a pessimist but still maintains a hope that he can make it with enough hard work. While Stafford, Benjie, Christina, and Havana all love the stardom and money that Hollywood brings, but thrive and profit on the stress that the industry can bring. Each of them maintains a level of cynicism when dealing with their agents or other people in Hollywood. It’s an interesting examination of the psychology behind each of these characters.
Maps to the Stars is hardly a satisfying film when it ends. Like other Cronenberg films, it is bizarre and the plot requires a lot of thought when it ends. But what the film lacks in total cohesion, it makes up for in character depth. Each of the characters in the film feels like fully realized characters; someone that might actually exist in Hollywood. This character study is enough to make the film worthwhile. If you’re a fan of bizarre family dramas with a hint of ghost story, Maps to the Stars will not disappoint you.