For a stretch in the mid-aughts, it looked as though Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg had gone a bit Hollywood, despite never shooting any of his films there. Having built a career on the psychologically and visually grotesque, the three-peat of A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method saw Cronenberg attracting big names to awards-buzz material that, while still beholden to his darker impulses, played well with critics. Then 2012’s Cosmopolis started him down a slippery slope leading back to material as confounding as it was disturbing. His latest, Maps to the Stars, marks Cronenberg’s full-blown relapse into misanthropic weirdness, but with more expensive drugs at his disposal.
The first of his pictures to actually shoot in America is just as much concerned with atrophying empire as Cosmopolis was, but centers on the sunny Hollywood rot of the entertainment industry, instead of New York’s well-tailored economic sociopathy. When the film opens with fresh-off-the-bus Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) hiring a limo driver played by Robert Pattinson, you’re tempted to think Cronenberg is merely moving his Cosmopolis shtick to the west coast. But rather than following one particular character on a luxury cruise into oblivion, Maps to the Stars hauls in a wide array of industry stereotypes and clichés worth roasting.
The daughter of a mantra-spouting self-help guru (John Cusack) and an icy stage manager mother (Olivia Williams), Agatha has returned to L.A. after spending seven years in a mental ward. She bears the physical and mental scars leftover from the night she nearly killed her younger brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), who’s now a famous tween actor. Thanks to a social media connection (to Carrie Fisher, of all people), Agatha quickly finds work as the personal assistant for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading starlet who never escaped the shadow of her abusive, dead movie star mother.
Whether it’s through blood or business, the interconnected collection of miscreants Bruce Wagner has assembled in his script are universally loathsome in their own familiar ways. Benjie’s a brat on the drug and career rehabilitation path that involves visiting dying young fans in hospital, and offering them iPads when he can’t remember if they have cancer or AIDS. Moore steals most of the show with a cocktail of airhead desperation and drug-addled obliviousness that make Havana a walking tabloid scandal that’s no longer famous enough to warrant reporting.
Maps to the Stars shares a similar poetic pathology to Cosmopolis, but its virulence is subtler. The film is less concerned with the satirical commentary its characters provide about Hollywood than it is the (sometimes literal) ghosts haunting them. Cronenberg doesn’t want to pillory the rich and the famous so much as place them under a microscope and watch them squirm. Saving the drama for the dialogue, the flashiest Cronenberg gets is through quick-cutting close-ups to shove a character’s face in yours. He’s content to let the subjects unravel before you without having the camera pull the thread. The sterile mansions and meeting rooms the characters lock themselves in act like wood-panelled asylums, perfect for keeping the inmates docile, but able to go up in flames at a moment’s notice, just in case.
For a while, it seems as though Cronenberg wants you to sympathize with his Malibu monstrosities, vapid and shallow as most of them are. There’s always that glimmer of sad, pathetic humanity to these people that’s exposed once they’re out of the spotlight, and when they occasionally try to connect with one another, it can almost be touching. The longer Maps to the Stars goes on, the more it resembles a twisted version of a feel good indie drama, from the California setting, to the complicated family connections, to the constant specter of mental illness. There’s even a wedding at the end.
But if this is David Cronenberg’s take on Little Miss Sunshine, then it’s unmistakably his own. The black hole of misanthropy eventually swallows all in Maps to the Stars. These are mostly awful people doing mostly awful things to one another and themselves, so while that lends the film to an occasionally hilarious bit of abrasive insight, its cynicism grows tiring the more inevitable it becomes. The deeper it sinks into insanity, the crueler it gets, in so far as any action taken against beings of such alien speech and existent could be called cruel. Maps to the Stars is nasty and brutish, but certainly not short, so it’s often a patience-tester.
At the very least, it’s an authentically bleak vision of humanity Cronenberg is delivering. Wasikowska, doing the best work here as a young woman tiptoeing over an abyss, delivers Maps to the Stars’ most indelible image at the same time that its director tells critics just what it is they can do with their awards. You can respect the audacity of Maps to the Stars, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
Maps to the Stars sees Cronenberg relapsing into old habits, for better or worse.