Film Review: ‘Maps to the Stars’

David Cronenberg has had a tough time of late. Though his last two efforts, A Dangerous Method (2011) and Cosmopolis (2012), arguably lacked the shocking cut and thrust of his most visceral outings, they were both far from abject failures. Neither is Maps to the Stars (2014), a celebrity satire from the Canadian body horror maestro which received a largely warm reception at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Written by American novelist Bruce Wagner (Dead Stars), Maps revels in Hollywood’s many grotesqueries yet crucially lacks the cool wit and intelligence that comes hand-in-hand with a Cronenberg on his A-game. Overbearingly catty, there’s little actual meat underneath all the ghoulish cosmetics.

The film orbits the almost entirely despicable Weiss family, positioned as the archetypal Hollywood dynasty. Patriarch Stafford (John Cusack in asshole mode) is a self-help guru who has amassed a fortune in book sales and private sessions with the rich and famous. His wife Christina (Olivia Williams), meanwhile, manages the career of their 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star with a patchy record in substance abuse. The final missing quarter of the family Weiss is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), sister of Benjie, herself only recently released from a sanatorium following an act of familial pyromania in which the two siblings were almost killed. A scarred Agatha returns to the fold as a “chore whore” PA to monstrous actress Havana (Julianne Moore), who is also coincidentally a client of her estranged father.

As the stars gradually begin to align, Cronenberg and Wagner’s ghastly host of wannabes and wannadies are laid bare in all their hideous glory, the disfigured Agatha ironically the only character with a semblance of humanity – or so it would seem. Cosmopolis alumni Sarah Gadon and Robert Pattinson are also brought along for this almighty collision of ids and egos, the former as the spectre of Havana’s more attractive, more successful thespian mother (now deceased), the latter as a budding screenwriter who earns a crust as a chauffeur to Havana and her ilk. For the first half-hour or so, Maps to the Stars busies itself with testing its audience on pop culture recognition, with vague references to movie moguls (“Harvey’s Harvey”) met with even stranger real-life cameos from the likes of Carrie Fisher. It’s clear that scribe Wagner wants his barbed assault on Hollywood to feel at least in part authentic, but why tell us what we already know of fame’s fickle hand?

Even for disciples of Cronenberg and his mostly impeccable past studies into humankind’s ever-mutating perversions, you may find yourself questioning whether Maps is Wagner’s foetus in all but directorial stamp. Though a trickle of body horror inevitably seeps it’s way in as we reach a fire-cleansed finale, comparisons are more likely to be made with Paul Schrader and Brett Easton Ellis’ divisive The Canyons (2013) than Videodrome (1983), Crash (1996) or Cosmopolis. It’s a shame, as the king of venereal horror should have had a ball with the diseased, pulsating mass that is the entertainments industry. What we have instead is a scabrous, yet surprisingly scab-less familial drama that falls back too comfortably on incest-as-metaphor when the faeces starts to fly. It’s time for a new Hollywood, but it’s also time for a new perspective on Hollywood.

Daniel Green

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