Sean Reviews David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars [NYFF 2014]

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David Cronenberg is a director whose early career was primarily known for an exceedingly graphic scene of a man’s head exploding, but lately he’s favored using a more intellectual (dare I say, heady?) approach to the madness. This doesn’t mean, however, that in his last three films he’s lost his edge. A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis, and now Maps to the Stars are all equally scathing in their subject matter—be it psychology, capitalism, or Hollywood. He just didn’t need someone’s head to explode to prove his enigmatic point. Cronenberg’s films are enigmatic because throughout his entire career he’s intentionally left audiences asking, to varying degrees, “What was that all about?” while still being able to connect with a wide range of those audiences on a visceral level, which brings me again to Maps to the Stars.

Both visceral and superficial, enigmatic but completely topical, Cronenberg’s newest film makes its point outright while still reserving some of the moody atmospheric weirdness from the director that we’ve come to know and love. Though it doesn’t present itself that way, Maps to the Stars is among his most grotesque films (it also happens to be extremely funny) simply because it presents human beings themselves at their very external worst.

The initially confusing web of an ensemble begins with the LA-arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), with her elbow-length gloves and shoulder-length hair partially hiding burn marks that are gradually explained later, after a long period of being away. She tells her limo driver (a small but appropriate cameo by Robert Pattinson) that she’s in town to visit family, and instead of doing so promptly gets a job as a “chore whore” (a personal assistant) for a washed-up movie star named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Segrand is the daughter of a beloved movie star who died in a fire very young (Sarah Gedon), and happens to be pursuing the role in the remake of a movie her mother made famous. To subdue her anxiety she visits her cheesy new-age guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who along with his wife Christina (Olivia Williams) must deal with their 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird) who is the star of a nearly $1 billion-grossing franchise called “Bad Babysitter,” and who is also a foul-mouthed, energy drink swilling drug addict in recovery.

It’s a lot to take in, but the film unfurls the salacious details surrounding its characters well, focusing mostly on why Agatha is in town, who her parents are, and the coincidence of why both Agatha and Segrand’s mother were “touched by fire,” with a devilishly satirical abandon. What will strike many Cronenberg fans the most is just how funny it is, with jokes that name drop everybody from Chuck Lorre, to Paul Thomas Anderson, to the Dalai Lama all encompassing a seething and darkly comedic portrait of a culture in decline.

In the world of Maps to the Stars there is no sincerity, and only the most shallow and opportunistic people survive. Moore’s performance in particular as the ditzy and collagen-injected has-been is the film’s standout. Cronenberg’s Los Angeles is a place where the creative impulse is driven by how many awards could possibly be won or how many zeroes come after the dollar sign. These are unbalanced people constantly looking to be validated in whatever form comes their way.

As soon as the narrative places are set, Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner gleefully and hauntingly bring it all crashing to the ground. Havana begins seeing visions of her mother who constantly reminds her that she’ll never be as good, and Benjie witnesses similar hallucinations of a sick young girl he visited at the hospital at the movie’s beginning who he finds out has since died (despite the fact, as the movie humorously points out, he sent her an iPad mini). These apparitions are never fully explained, but are thematically linked to both the potential schizophrenia of the glamorous life and the actual illness itself.

It is a ghostly turn that will be off-putting to some, but those who realize that the characters and Hollywood itself are constantly fearing their past will be able to find convincing narrative connections. Similarly discouraging are the hints of incest peppered throughout which, other than adding further twisted details into these already sordid matters, lets Cronenberg do what he does best and explore and question human sexuality in all of its unsightly forms.

Maps to the Stars works the most when specifically focusing on its singular themes. Only when it tries to blend them does it tend to come across as clumsy or hollow. And though the film may not strike many as a groundbreaking piece of work it is still a fierce achievement this late in the 71-year-old’s career. Instead of focusing on telepathic killers or psychoplasmic children, he’s resigned to making some of us look in the mirror to see something even more horrific. It’s only then that Cronenberg gives us a choice. If we like what we see, then burn, Hollywood, burn.

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