Movies which suggest that Hollywood is (gasp!) a superficial and incestuous place are a dime a dozen, but I've never seen one quite like Maps to the Stars. The screenplay by Bruce Wagner occasionally presents material that feels like it ought to be accompanied by playfully ironic saxophone music, but David Cronenberg doesn't direct it that way. Here is a Hollywood satire presented as a psychological horror film and/or a supernatural horror film; a ghost story that turns the entirety of Los Angeles into a haunted house. The ghosts in the film may or may not be imagined, but it hardly matters - the unsettling end result is the same.
To say that the characters in this film crave fame would be an understatement. They have a desperate need for fame that verges on vampiric; a willingness to do, say or screw anything for a decent career move. Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, Magnolia) is fading middle-aged actress who hopes to be cast in a high-profile remake of a film that starred her late mother. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird, The Killing) is a child star and recovering drug addict whose popularity is rapidly ascending in the wake of his wildly successful comedy Bad Babysitter. Benjie's father is Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack, Say Anything), a bestselling author, motivational speaker, TV psychologist and new age massage therapist. Benjie's mother is Cristina (Olivia Williams, Dollhouse), who tolerates her son's horrific behavior for the sake of keeping his fragile ego intact. Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison, Cosmopolis) is a limo driver trying to find steady work as an actor and screenwriter.
All of these individuals are connected by Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker), Benjie's estranged sister who has just returned to California after spending years in a Florida mental institution. She has severe burn scars on the side of her face and wears long black gloves to cover the scars on her arms. Upon her arrival, she quickly proceeds to become Jerome's lover and Havana's personal assistant (an opportunity made possible by Agatha's friendship with Carrie Fisher, playing herself). On the surface, Agatha seems better-adjusted than any of the film's other characters. Suffice it to say that she has demons of her own hidden well beneath the surface.
As with quite a few of Cronenberg's films, Maps to the Stars isn't a movie for everyone. Almost all of the characters in this movie are noxious, deeply unlikable people who do genuinely awful things to each other for shallowest of reasons. Initially, the film feels like a pitch-black comedy. After a while, it simply feels pitch-black. Throughout much of the film's second half, I had knots in my stomach as I watched these characters reach news depths of cruelty and selfishness. If the characters are too unlikable to care about, why did I have knots in my stomach? Because Cronenberg makes it clear that the problem is larger than bad people doing bad things.
Maps to the Stars treats fame as an infectious disease that pitilessly corrodes the souls of those who come in contact with it. The theme of (metaphorical and literal) incest runs through the movie in a variety of different ways, suggesting that these plague-ridden people are passing on their wretched condition to one another and creating a breeding ground for fame-dependent monsters. It's admittedly an exaggerated version of the way the real world works (the film could be categorized as horror/melodrama), but the knots in my stomach had little interest in what the more rational part of my mind had to say on the matter.
The performances are exceptional. It's been a while since Cusack has seemed so engaged in a role, and he completely sells his character's "Dr. Phil meets Tony Robbins meets Deepak Chopra" routine. There are a couple of scenes in which Cusack gives Moore massages that feel deeply uncomfortable in both a sexual and psychological way (Cusack's groaning is particularly unnerving). Wasikowska is effectively intriguing playing the film's most enigmatic character, and young Evan Bird is effectively loathesome as the film's least enigmatic character. Olivia Williams is tremendous as a mother trying (and failing) to fill the deep void in her heart, while Robert Pattinson uses his otherworldly charisma to good effect (he's less chilly than he was in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, but no less effective).
Good as the ensemble is, the movie belongs to Julianne Moore. She has long demonstrated a willingness to take her characters to places other actresses dare not go, and here she turns in the sort of performance that actually merits an overused descriptor like “fearless.” There's one uncomfortable scene in which she carries on a conversation while sitting on the toilet, complete with graphic sound effects. How many other high-profile actresses would have been willing to set aside their vanity to that degree? You feel for Havana and fear her at the same time: she's struggling with the sort of inexplicable career death that many actresses her age are confronted with (a nasty side effect of a deeply sexist industry), but her willingness to confront that by any means necessary is startling. Moore plays wicked witch and agonized victim simultaneously, and the end result is astonishing. She's one of the finest actresses working today, and this performance is yet another demonstration of it.
The film struggles to articulate its ideas effectively at times. A handful of scenes (particularly early ones) trade in stereotypical satirical jabs, and after a series of powerful, operatic climaxes, the actual ending feels like weak tea (admittedly, Cronenberg often struggles with figuring out how to wrap things up effectively). The movie's low budget also rears its ugly head on occasion, particularly in a crucial special effects shot that looks painfully cheap and undercuts the drama of an intense moment. These are distractions that prevent Maps from the Stars from achieving the full power it might have, but there's no denying that the film has a great deal of power, anyway.
I mentioned earlier that this is a ghost story. No, really: several characters see ghosts from their past popping up to taunt them, hurt them, poke them and prod them. What motivates this maliciousness? Why do these ghosts feel a need to make reality a living hell for those who have replaced them in life? When you consider that the characters in this film will also become ghosts someday, the answers become terrifyingly clear.
Maps to the Stars
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Release Year: 2015
Running Time: 111 minutes