Maps to the Stars (dir. David Cronenberg)

Posted: September 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

“Maps to the Stars” is another film for Cronenberg to try new stuff with.  After making a career out of various types of horror or semi-horror films in the Body Horror subgenre, he has spent the last few years experimenting in different fields.  The Cronenberg of “A History of Violence”, “Eastern Promises”, and “A Dangerous Method” doesn’t feel like the Cronenberg who brought us films like “Videodrome”, “Scanners” or his remake of “The Fly”.  Supposedly his son has taken up that old mantel, though I have yet to see his “Antiviral” to see for myself.  Now the elder Cronenberg tries his hand at Bret Easton Ellis territory with “Maps to the Stars”, a film that often feels like the Ellis of “Lunar Park”, a quasi-horror satire of celebrity, or “Glamorama”, an outright satire of celebrity, albeit warmed over.  Some scenes are filmed with the quiet reserve of an Atom Egoyan film, while others have bad CGI fire or male nudity that I was surprised to find didn’t get the film an NC-17.  Egoyan, who like Cronenberg is a Canadian director, did get an NC-17 for his film “Where the Truth Lies”, a film that wasn’t quite as explicit a showbiz satire as “Maps” is, but that former film crept in to my mind as I watched the latter.

If Cronenberg made this film to be a biting attack on Hollywood, I’m afraid he fails because he embraces cliché too readily.  We have characters that we are used to seeing in films such as these: the over-the-hill starlet desperate to feel sexy and get good parts (here played by Julianne Moore in what is genuinely an excellent performance that brings to mind what Lindsay Lohan might be like if she makes it to her 40s); the self-help guru (John Cusack, whose career seems to be stuck in Direct-to-video-on-demand-hell); the bratty young star recovering from drugs (Evan Bird, who isn’t the best actor but still works in portraying his character); and the menial worker who wants to break into the biz (Robert Pattinson, who does a much better job of acting here then his laughably awful performance in “Twilight”.  I haven’t seen anything else from him, though Cronenberg also worked with him in “Cosmopolis”, making two films that they have worked on together where Pattinson spends most of his time in a limo).

The plot is perhaps a tad more original then the character descriptions may make it seem.  Mia Wasikowska, who was excellent in HBO’s “In Treatment” and is a dead ringer for a young Aurora Snow, is a young schizophrenic girl with scars from a house fire she set as a young girl.  Eighteen and having been released from a mental hospital, she returns to LA to meet up with her family, including her brother (Bird) who she harbors incestuous feelings for, and her father (Cusack) who wants nothing to do with her.  She obtains a job as the assistant to the Moore’s character, who is trying to get the lead role in a film that is a remake of one her mother starred in.  Moore’s character believes she was physically and sexually abused by her now-deceased mother in her childhood, but she is haunted by visions of her mother as she appeared in her prime.  Whether the visions are a result of mental illness or are genuinely the ghost of the woman the film leaves to the viewer to decide.

Bird’s character is a young teen that stars in a film franchise called “Bad Babysitter” and is recovering from drug addiction.  He is also haunted by a ghost that may be a hallucination, in this case a young female fan with lymphoma who he visited in the hospital prior to her death.  His sister being schizophrenic, he has reason to worry about such visions, especially since she almost killed him in the fire she started in childhood.

The film follows its plot machinations, jumping between “Entourage”-level Hollywood satire and genuine moments of creepiness, as well as quiet character moments and true pathos.  The film never feels at odds tonally, the satire and the horror-like scenes and the drama all seem to somehow fit together, and as an audience member you don’t feel jerked around through the shifts.  One has to credit Cronenberg for making these disparate moments feel like a cohesive film tonally.

The main problem, however, is that this film isn’t all that original or saying anything really important.  The satire of this film is tired and well-worn, and quite frankly beneath Cronenberg and the talented cast.  It’s clear they are trying to be Bret Easton Ellis, but the film comes across as a lazy, very easy shot at Hollywood types, one in the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel variety.  The film shines when it lets the characters breathe. Moore gets to do great work with what is a stock character. Wasikowska is unique and seems to have stepped into this stuff from a different movie.  When the films descends into murder and incest, we wind up wishing Cronenberg and his writer has dispensed with the facile shots at Tinsel Town and had this story take place in a different industry.

Still, the film keeps your attention, and Moore and Wasikowska do excellent jobs with what they are given.  Ultimately, though, we’re left with a film whose only reason for existing is to answer the hypothetical question: “What would happen if David Cronenberg filmed an adaptation of one of Bret Easton Ellis’s lesser novels?”

C+

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