52nd New York Film Festival Review: ‘Maps to the Stars’

Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Bruce Wagner
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Julianne Moore, Evan Bird, & John Cusack

David Cronenberg’s enjoyably twisted ‘Maps to the Stars’ is a vicious skewering of Hollywood that benefits from a savage wit, sharp direction, and strong scenery-chewing performances from game actors. But the film ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Cronenberg’s take on the industry – did you know that Hollywood is filled with greedy, callous, incestuous, superficial narcissists? – isn’t particularly fresh or nuanced. And while the cast of incredibly screwed-up characters is often magnetic, the film doesn’t provide a truly relatable character to meaningfully invest in, muting the story’s emotional impact. Instead, Cronenberg keeps viewers at a distance from the material by failing to offer a clear identification point amid Maps’ sea of narcissistic starlets, megalomaniacal self-help gurus, and unhinged schizophrenics.

The film starts off following seemingly disconnected characters, the most sympathetic of whom is Mia Wasikowska’s sweet, willowy Agatha. Agatha drifts into town and soon finds herself flirting with aspiring actor/writer Jerome (Robert Pattinson) and working as personal assistant to actress Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore). Ms. Wasikowsa exudes an endearing vulnerability (anyone who saw her in HBO’s ‘In Treatment’ knows she excels at this), yet there’s also something noticeably “off” about Agatha, including her mysterious burns and an unnerving interest in house fires.

Our other leads are tyrannical child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and, of course, Ms. Moore’s histrionic actress Havanna Segrand. Havanna lives in the shadow of her long-dead, abusive movie-star mom, and desperately wants the starring role in an upcoming remake of the film that made her mother famous. Havanna also happens to be a raging narcissist, sycophantic phony, and likely sociopath. Ms. Moore sinks her teeth into the role with zeal, chewing the scenery and stealing her scenes with an effective combo of desperation, mania, narcissism, and deranged magnetism. In one ghoulish scene, Havanna celebrates a young boy’s death after realizing the tragedy benefits her career: Moore plays this with unforgettable glee, buoyantly leaping up and down like a young girl who just won a pony. Cronenberg’s camera accentuates Havanna’s inner ugliness by lingering on her in compromised and crass situations, be it on the toilet or engaged in unflattering coitus.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Benjie is in recovery from a drug addiction and trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow. Benjie is filming a sequel to his hit movie franchise while putting up with weekly drug tests, a spotlight-hogging costar, and his abusive father Stafford (John Cusack). Benjie, while clearly part-Bieber parody, is nonetheless a vibrant character in his own right. Like Moore, young Evan Bird steals the screen in a potential breakout performance. On one level, Benjie is the embodiment of Hollywood ego, and Bird plays the prima donna with aplomb, snapping off juicy, withering insults at coworkers and staff. But Benjie also has more depth than Havanna, including genuine misgivings about his father’s choices. If the film has a villain, it’s undoubtedly Stafford: a controlling, megalomaniacal self-help guru with his own book deal and TV show. Stafford has damaged his family with the single-minded aim of furthering his career. Stafford’s cowed his wife Christina, whose helplessness is ably played by Olivia Williams, into complete submission. Stafford’s villainy is extreme and one-note, and Cusack’s performance doesn’t do much to elevate a cardboard character. While Williams and Pattinson both give solid supporting performances, it’s ultimately the leads, Moore, Byrd, and Wasikowska, who steal the show.

The various plot strands come together, at least to an extent, as the characters’ hidden secrets and inner demons eventually unspool and explode. Yet ‘Maps’’ disparate components never coalesce into a tight, cohesive narrative or a dramatically satisfying whole. Random story elements, such as the ‘Sixth Sense’-esque visions of dead people experienced by some of the characters, are never explained. Meanwhile, many initially relatable characters spiral into psychosis or villainy, emotionally distancing the audience from the material. And while Maps’ anti-Hollywood sentiment provides the story with a thematic anchor, it’s a particularly heavy-handed one. At this point, roasting Hollywood as vapid and callous is like shooting fish in a barrel – this brand of satire has been done with more subtlety and resonance in films like ‘The Player,’ ‘Swimming with Sharks,’ ‘Barton Fink,’ ‘Adaptation, ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ and ‘Sullivan’s Travels.’

Yet “Maps to the Stars” remains eminently watchable, not only because of its great performances, but also its sharp humor and terrific dialogue from screenwriter Bruce Wagner. Wagner’s script and Cronenberg’s crisp direction keep the story moving at a brisk pace, and Cronenberg has crafted a number of striking and darkly comic set pieces to keep the proceedings lively. Howard Shore’s music is used sparsely, as Cronenberg’s camera and the performances of Moore, Byrd, and Wasikowska are allowed to do the heavy lifting. Maps to the Stars is an enjoyable dark comedy with thriller trappings that offers great performances and a terrific sense of humor, but doesn’t ultimately have anything new to say about Hollywood or provide an emotionally moving experience.

Jason Teich


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