Maps to the Stars Review

Posted: September 21, 2014 in Reviews
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Maps to the StarsMaps to the Stars premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in April of this year, competing for the Palme d’Or as best picture and earning a best actress award for Julianne Moore. The takeaway from that success for the casual filmgoer may be somewhat misleading. Just as many went to see Black Swan after hearing of Natalie Portman’s performance as a troubled ballerina only to be shocked that director Darren Aronofsky had used horror film conventions to tell his story of a dancer descending into a hellish madness, so, too, may some viewers be lured into this movie by incorrect expectations. Maps to the Stars is not a mainstream motion picture. Director David Cronenberg was, is, and always will be, a genre director. That is not intended as an insult or a limitation. Is it a knock on Hitchcock to say he was a director of thrillers? The brilliance of Cronenberg’s filmography is self-evident; his influence on the industry well documented. From the venereal horror productions of They Came From Within and Rabid through the sci-fi mind screws of Videodrome, The Fly, and eXistenZ with stops along the way to look at the outcasts on the fringes of society in Naked Lunch, M.Butterfly, and Crash, Cronenberg has been directing the most demanding, challenging, and prophetic of genre films for almost 40 years.

In Maps to the Stars, he stays true to his genre roots, creating a masterwork, while hinting that his masterpiece may still come. For those who rightfully ask for evidence to support the assertion the film is not mainstream fare, consider that it includes ghosts, incest, and immolation. Hollywood as presented here is a post-apocalyptic emotional wasteland, where the days are filled with sunshine, the nights are packed with personal demons, and, Hell is a world without narcotics. Go back to Kansas, one character sneers, knowing that while the physical trip may still be possible, the recovery of the requisite innocence is out of reach. It’s Gommorah without God’s judgment, Nathaniel West’s Los Angeles with personal trainers and chore whores. Humor is hurtful, because hurt and anger are the only emotions that register in a town so jaded by the pursuit and maintenance of fame that a man stands up from a ménage à trois to take a call from his director and all one of the women can say is, “Mention me.”

Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner are our twisted tour guides who lift the curtain for a long look into the sausage factory, taking special delight at upending long-established conventions. The film starts with one of Hollywood’s greatest cliches – a young, innocent waif gets off a bus, determined to make it big in the movie business. Except Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) is no innocent waif, and it’s not her first time at this particular rodeo. She gets off her Greyhound and steps immediately into a hired limo, driven by actor-writer wannabe Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson). She might ask him to pick up one of the star maps, but Agatha knows exactly where she wants to go: an abandoned homesite literally in the shadows of the Hollywood sign, where a famous child actor used to live. That child actor, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), is now is his teens, and fresh out of rehab. The suits at the studio insist on a sit-down before casting him to the sequel to the smash-hit, I Was a Bad Babysitter to “protect the franchise.” “I am the franchise,” he retorts. Benjie was making $300,000 per week at the age of nine, which explains not only his addictions, but also his social awkwardness when visiting terminal kids in the hospital and his profane, obnoxious behavior toward any adult subject to his control.

Meanwhile, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is being treated by the patriarch of the Weiss family, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), an infomercial making, self-help therapist who saves as personal trainer and spiritual guide for Havana in her quest to deal with the recovered memories of abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, the more beautiful, the more gifted, the more beloved actress, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon). Clarice died at an early age, but had at least one memorable screen appearance, starring as a mental patient in a role that earned her a Golden Globe and a cult following after her tragic death in a fire on Christmas Day. Now, Havana is desperate to star as her mother in a reimagining of that movie, but she is thwarted by Clarice’s ghost, still looking every bit as beautiful as when she was alive and quick to point out her daughter’s growing inadequacies.

Maps to the Stars is the story of the two families, the Weiss’ and the Taggart/Segrand’s, and the incestuous relationships within and between. Agatha becomes Havana’s personal assistant (thanks to her Twitter friend, Carrie Fisher), enters a relationship with the limo driver, and slowly works toward revealing the reason for her return to Los Angeles. The narrative moves easily between the main characters in seamless transitions that create a false sense of movement and development, because, in fact, the characters are devolving – all of them – into their primal urges, fears, and weaknesses. The trappings of success are stripped away, and each one is exposed. Those who embrace and accept the exposure receive the ultimate Hollywood farewell: death as a young and beautiful corpse. Others suffer a much worse fate.

Moore’s performance as Havana has garnered the most attention to date, but it strikes the viewer as so much Oscar bait on second viewing, with the redhead throwing herself with all the manic glee of Norma Desmond into a role that makes her look uglier physically and spiritually than one could ever imagine. Yes, her peers will consider her brave for appearing swollen and disheveled, but sitting on the toilet, while the sound man makes fart noises off screen, is not necessarily the hallmark of an enthralling performance. Olivia Williams is equally good in a far more thankless role as Christina, the matriarch of the Weiss family, a shrewd businesswoman managing her son’s career, who is aware that the family will always be a tabloid headline away from shame and failure.

However, most important to the success of the film are Wasikowska and Bird. The star-crossed siblings are the center of this picture, and the performances of the two actors are staggeringly good. Wearing over-the-elbow gloves to hide the burns on her arms, yet parading the scars on her face without a hint of self-consciousness, Agatha is ingenue, mastermind, abuser and abused. “For a disfigured schizophrenic, you seem to have the town wired pretty good,” her brother tells her. Indeed, as a disfigured schizophrenic, Wasikowska has the movie wired pretty good. Bird is equally excellent as the younger brother fearful of following his sister into insanity. He is trapped between childhood and adulthood, and proving himself to be terrible at both. Yet, Bird’s work is so nuanced that viewers never give up on him; we get angry and upset, but never hate.

Robert Pattinson as the limousine driver was inspired casting, a submersion of the Twilight franchise’s heartthrob into the role of faceless aspiring actor that illustrates how nobody is special in LA until suddenly, inexplicably they are. Pattinson, in this role and his previous supporting stint in The Rover, shows exponential growth since the silliness of the Edward Cullen days. He has camera charisma, and is developing the chops to match the mug. Can he become the next Brad Pitt, a great looking guy capable of turning in an Oscar-worthy performance? Could be. For now, he needs to take the next step and find a 360-degree role that allows him the range to show off his growing confidence and abilities.

Wagner’s screenplay is generally solid, although there are instances where he seems to be spinning apocryphal tales of bad behavior from the annals of Hollywood, including a scene involving what may or may not be a loaded hand gun. In addition, the dialogue in scenes between Benjie and his young friends is strained, reminiscent of a parent to trying to be cool in front of his children, but failing terribly. Those minor shortcomings aside, Wagner turned in a solid script. It’s almost as if he combined the sensibilities of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 with Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, two of his previous screenplays. That’s the perfect fodder for director Cronenberg, who created something special in his first Hollywood film by remembering where he came from.

Four stars.

 

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