Virulent, dismal, crackling, and unforgiving, Maps to the Stars is a sickly enjoyable wallow in the scandalous side of show business; a writhing, pharmaceutically heightened waking nightmare; and a grotesque noir vivisectional in its scorn and sadism. It’s a seething cauldron of a film.
A tour through the lives of an LA family chasing celebrity, one another, and the relentless ghosts of their pasts, Maps to the Stars follows the Weiss’s. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a shady schizophrenic who arrives from Florida and lands a job as the personal assistant of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging diva with bubblehead mannerisms and a penchant for impromptu threesomes. Stafford (John Cusack) is a self-promoting self-help guru whose “Hour of Personal Power” has brought him A-list clientele. Christina (Olivia Williams) manages the career of their disaffected child-star son, Benjie, a fresh graduate of rehab at age 13.
Cusack exudes telegenic charm when hocking his bestselling guide to holistic healing and dials up the ferocity when dealing with the unwanted Agatha, and Williams (Anna Karenina) matches Cusack ounce for ominous ounce. Cannes Best Actress winner Moore (Don Jon) gets the tricky tone uniquely right, effervescing and spooling disgust, playing Havana like a person walking a tightrope over a yawning pit of psychosis, her rabid emotions threatening her to knock her off and send her plummeting into the abyss. Since The Kids Are All Right, Wasikowska has completed a string of roles doused in intense existential angst (Jane Eyre, Stoker, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Double).
Canadian director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) has nothing left to prove. Working an even deeper haunted groove than David Lynch did in Mulholland Dr., Maps to the Stars is an etched-in-acid comedy that attempts to dig deeper into the perversions and pathologies undergirding the Dream Factory than anything since. While far from his canniest piece of filmmaking, it’s definitely his angriest: Cronenberg constructs his crystal kingdom, then launches his stones with mischievous joy, panning satiric gold from the muck of celebrity ills, in a place where reality depends on your dosage.
Graphic, dark, and horrifying, Cronenberg’s vision is as bright as a sunlamp, as still as a morgue, and as sterile as an operating table, offering no moral stance, full of that dreamy fixation with aberration and perversity. It doesn’t touch Sunset Blvd. or All About Eve, but Cronenberg is on bullish form, the script is dipped in venom – black-hearted to the point of being mean-spirited (there are jokes about being “menopausal” and Mother Teresa being “f***ed up,” and metaphoric singing/dancing on the grave of a young boy) – and the cast is on full power.
Drenched in unhappiness that oozes out of the screen, Maps to the Stars dabbles in every repugnant taboo under the sun – child abandonment, sexual abuse, drug addiction, pyromania, facial disfigurement, hallucinations, animal cruelty, retaliatory menstruation, graveyard wedding ceremonies, incest, murder by strangulation and blunt force trauma, mass suicide. It’s one of the least sympathetic Hollywood take-downs ever mounted. Cronenberg always does justice to his characters; he just leaves them without hope.
Maps to the Stars is a tale of terminal wastrels with the twisted structure of a Greek tragedy and the rictus grin of a rancorous sitcom. A plaintive chord of melancholy rings throughout, evident in the repeated invocations of Paul Éluard’s poem “Liberty,” a paean to freedom clandestinely published at the height of the Nazi occupation of France. The status-anxiety, fame-vertigo, sexual satiety, and all-encompassing fear of failure which poisons every triumph are displayed with an icy new connoisseurship.
Narratively unwieldy and tonally jumbled, the plot is predictable, melodramatic, and nonsensical, and often comes across as jaded mumbo-jumbo. Yet for a film that has so many problems, it is one of the more watchable ones. It has a venomous bite that makes you think and shudder with outrage. With so many industry neuroses exposed and horrors nested within horrors, one viewing is too much, and not enough.
Scraping away the shiny surface of Hollywood to discover a Cronenbergian outbreak of tortured families, reprehensible behaviour, and extreme violence, Maps to the Stars is an elaborate circus of errors that’s close to the fake smiles and boardroom handshakes of the real thing. It’s a remorseless assault on a Tinseltown stoned on the self-delusion that it’s a hard-working utopia, an altruistic fountain gushing the milk of human kindness, when it’s actually a world comprised of destructive impulses, and designed to breed more of them.