Arts Review, Movies

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars featured image

David Cronenberg, director
Bruce Wagner, script
Starring: Julianne Moore (Havana Segrand), Mia Wasikowska (Agatha Weiss), John Cusack (Dr. Stafford Weiss), Robert Pattinson (Jerome Fontana), Olivia Williams (Cristina Weiss), Sarah Gadon (Clarice Taggart), Evan Bird (Benjie Weiss), Carrie Fisher (herself)

If anyone was worried that David Cronenberg had become too safe after his hermetic adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and the rather clumsy histrionics of his Jungian historical romance A Dangerous Method, their fears will be allayed by the Cannes award-winning Maps to the Stars. The old Cronenberg is back, just as shockingly repellant and endlessly fascinating as ever. Maps to the Stars is a grand guignol melodrama replete with dead children, sexual abuse (imagined or actual), incest, murder, drugs and schizophrenia. The Canadian auteur’s famed appreciation for damaged or rearranged body parts is given free rein with a leading character suffering from extensive scarring due to a fire while another is battered to death by an Oscar statue, with blood spurting everywhere.

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An Oscar? This film could possibly end up with an award though I doubt it. Julianne Moore did win the best actress prize at Cannes for  her riveting performance as Havana Segrand, the aging, neurotic actress who desperately wants to make a comeback to stardom playing the role that made her mother an icon decades earlier. Poor Havana isn’t being helped by her mother; her ghost (an ethereal Sarah Gadon) haunts her, helping to further unhinge someone who clearly isn’t coping well with her life anyway. Moore is phenomenal as Havana: she chews up more scenery than Bette Davis did in her heyday.

No one comes close to matching her but Cronenberg and scriptwriter Bruce Wagner have managed to create characters worthy of one of the most vicious family dynamics in decades. John Cusack plays the Dad, Dr. Stafford Weiss, a hollow man, who has made a fortune preaching self-help to the rich and psychotic; Olivia Williams is the appropriately terrifying wife, a chilly manipulator who lives through her son and definite breadwinner, Benjie (Evan Bird), a substance abusing 13-year-old Hollywood star, who lives and breathes anger and hostility.

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Into this viper’s nest returns the prodigal daughter, Agnes (Mia Wasikowska, the current Indie “it” girl); a fire-scarred schizophrenic, she burned down the family mansion nearly a decade ago in a crazed attempt to die with Benjie. Institutionalized as a minor, she’s returned to Hollywood, trying to make amends. With the family rightfully concerned about her presence, Agnes finds a job—as Havana’s personal assistant.

No good will come of all this, of course. Which makes the picture compulsively watchable. What these people do to each other is tragic, horrifying and inevitable. This is Hollywood Gothic, Cronenberg-style.

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The disconnect in Maps to the Stars is between Wagner’s witty script and the cold-as-ice direction of Cronenberg. In other hands, Maps to the Stars might have been a black comedy. That’s how it’s billed. But Cronenberg doesn’t make comedies. This is a satire that bludgeons its points; there are no rapier thrusts.

No one will ever claim that Maps to the Stars is perfect. The narrative makes little sense and the characters are really caricatures. But will you have a good time watching it? If depends on whether your sensibility is dark. Anyone who watches Cronenberg’s films has that sort of aesthetic. The public that enjoys this brilliant Torontonian’s work will find Maps to the Stars to be compulsive cinema.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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