Everyone has heard stories about the weird behaviour and roaring egos of movie stars; the idea of screen idols as covert monsters has seeped into popular culture. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) dives into a fictionalised Hollywood riddled with paranoia, backstabbing, drugs, odious child stars, incest and house fires. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in L.A. with long sleeves hiding the burns that cover her body. She meets Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and aspiring writer-actor, and gets a job working for actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) – a middle-aged brat caught between honouring her legendary, dead mother (Sarah Gadon) and trying to escape her shadow.
Meanwhile, Havana’s therapist/masseur/life coach, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and his wife Christina (Olivia Williams) try to wrangle their child-star son, Benji (Evan Bird). Those fans who deride Cronenberg’s recent deviations from the genres of science fiction and horror have failed to realise that in doing so the veteran Canadian director is nevertheless making some of his strangest films to date, even if they don’t feature trademark exploding heads or sex-crazed zombies. Spider (2002) would be an oddity in anyone’s filmography, while the Pattinson-starring Cosmopolis (2012) willfully defies all sorts of genre categorisation, existing somewhere between drama, science fiction and black comedy without ever fully embracing any of them.
Likewise, Maps to the Stars drifts from scene-to-scene, sometimes appearing to be an overcooked psychodrama, at other times deadpan satire. Much of the first half is shot and delivered like a structured reality series: the actors walk into a room, hug each other, have a conversation in a flatly-lit, static set-up, then bid each other farewell and leave again. It’s an interesting technique which invites the audience to laugh at the awful, desperate things that they say to and about each other, but not one which is particularly engaging emotionally. The film maintains a distanced position from the action for most of its runtime, jangling into an altogether more satisfying register whenever revealing Agatha’s attempts to revisit her mysterious past.
For all the star wattage in the film, it’s Wasikowska who shines brightest – though Julianne Moore turns in a great performance of her own, on a much broader scale than Wasikowska’s. Cronenberg has made films that are more intellectual than Maps to the Stars, he has made films that are more exciting, and films that are funnier. That’s not to say that this latest is not clever, exciting or funny. There is something unique and unsettling about the way Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner (whose novel Dead Stars was based on an earlier, unproduced version of this film) take the well-worn clichés of Hollywood melodrama and play them against one another. The film sparks, but a bit more fire would not have gone amiss.