Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Maps to the Stars Movie Review
David Cronenberg’s films have always been a bit of an acquired taste. If you can bear sitting through stories about emotionally and (often) physically scarred people who continue to be tortured by and torture themselves over their trauma, and you like it all presented in the harsh cold of the distance the filmmaker puts between his audience and the film’s subjects, then you might keep returning to his work. His films are rarely short of intriguing and boundary-pushing. At least it was through his first two decades or so. It’s getting harder and harder to shock people. Once you’ve done exploding heads, nude bathhouse knife fights, and people whose sexual fetish involves car crashes, where is there room for turning stomachs? His recent spate of work resides in a heightened glossy reality. He had a mainstream renaissance with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Those two are among the most accessible pieces in his body of work, but they still require a suspension of conventional expectations.
In Maps to the Stars, he sets his sights – through the screenplay by Bruce Wagner – on Hollywood in all its phoniness and drive to succeed at any cost. Think of The Player, but through the lens of psychological derangement. It’s a Hollywood satire with coolly sharp and subtle observations about the nature of making it in show business. One family, tortured by its sordid history of drugs, disorder, incest, and attempted murder, is at the center of a tale that appears culled from several different genre influences.
Mia Wasikowska plays Agnes, a young woman with burn scars on her face and body, who arrives in L.A. by bus looking for her old family home – which she incidentally burned to the ground in an attempt to kill her parents. Her father is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a TV therapist/guru to movie stars. His wife is played by Olivia Williams in a performance that strips her of all glamour to expose a beaten down vulnerability inside her. Their son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is a child star plagued by addiction and the need to be the center of attention both in his household and in his films. The other principal characters is Havana Segrand, an actress suffering her own psychological scarring left behind by her deceased mother, a Hollywood legend played only as a specter/hallucination by Sarah Gadon. Agnes, in trying to make contact with her estranged family, becomes Havana’s personal assistant.
The satirical thread in the screenplay works well. It’s never oversold. It manifests itself in behavior more than in explicit dialogue. So it’s the way young Benjie acts like a spoiled entitled brat in his agent’s office. It’s the disdain he exudes in his treatment of his put-upon mother. It’s there in the limo driver, played by Robert Pattinson (an actor who has truly mastered the art of understated delivery) who wants to be a screenwriter. It’s present in spades in Havana, who wrestles with her personal demons in trying to shake off the memory of maternal abuse delivered, a la Mommie Dearest, by a star of the silver screen. Havana wants to play her mother’s defining role in a remake of the fictional masterpiece Stolen Waters. Like Benjie, she has a sense of entitlement. I guess some movie stars never grow up. She sees the role as hers for the taking and a key to her mental healing process. She masks her anger and disappointment with a phony Hollywood smile when she meets the actress who won the role on the street. Later she’s incapable of masking her elation when she wins the role as a result of horrible tragedy in someone else’s life.
If Maps to the Stars had maintained a laser focus on that vision of Hollywood rather than incorporate other genre standards, it might have worked better. As it stands, it wedges in elements of supernatural thriller – both Benjie and Havana are visited by ghosts that remind them of their haunted pasts. And even the parallels between the two are facile. They share a common history with tragic fires, they share an agent and even a therapist (even if in Benjie’s case it’s his own father). The movie is also part family drama, but it never settles comfortably into one style which makes for an uneven experience. Then just for the hell of it, there’s a scene near the end which is a Grand Guignol horror show. Displays of sudden violence and blood are not uncommon in Cronenberg’s work, but more often than not the buildup is cohesive.
Julianne Moore is by far the greatest thing in this movie. The performance demands so much humiliation from her and she delves deeper than many other actresses would. Hold back just a little and it would have come across as stilted and fake. Push too hard and it becomes overplayed melodrama that’s hard to swallow. She finds the perfect tempo in every scene.