Director David Cronenberg has worked outside the mainstream of Hollywood filmmaking for over four decades. An unapologetically Canadian director, Cronenberg has never shot a film in the United States, until now. With Maps to the Stars, filmed in the palm-lined streets and palatial mansions of Los Angeles, Cronenberg has opted to take on the vapidity and (literal) incestuousness of Hollywood. But he has done it in a way that only an outsider could. Unlike Robert Altman’s The Player—another Hollywood satire made by a respected auteur who largely worked outside the studio system—Maps to the Stars is not littered with celebrity actors playing themselves, and it features only a sprinkling of insider jokes. At a certain point the film moves beyond being about Hollywood at all and seems to be about an alien race (a point driven home by the punning title—which doubly refers to those maps to the stars’ homes you can buy at Hollywood souvenir shops and to astronomical charts).
Maps to the Stars is a difficult film to get your arms around. Starting out as a bitter satire on Hollywood narcissism, it becomes something much stranger. With a stone-faced approach to comedy, Cronenberg’s film is a very odd sort of comedy. Personally, I found it exhilirating and frequently hilarious, but then I also liked the much-maligned Cosmopolis. All of which is to say, your mileage may vary. But if you can get yourself on the same astral plane as the film, you are in for a weird and wonderful time.
Maps to the Stars introduces us to a series of seemingly disparate characters. Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha, a striving young girl from Florida who arrives as if she’s an alien visitor from a distant planet. (“Where’d you come from?” Agatha is asked in one of the film’s first scenes. “Jupiter,” she responds, before adding belatedly, “Florida.”) Julianne Moore, in a hilarious yet nuanced performance, plays Havana Segrand, an aging starlet best known as the daughter of a famous Hollywood actress (Sarah Gadon), whose ghost haunts Havana throughout the film. Evan Bird, in a disturbingly blank-eyed performance, plays bratty, Bieber-esque child star Benjie Weiss. John Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a New Age-y, Tony Robbins sort of quack psychologist. Robert Pattinson plays Jerome Fontana, an aspiring writer and actor who drives around the rich and famous to make ends meet.
The film proceeds by connecting the dots between these various characters, as a star map draws lines between the stars to create constellations. Maps to the Stars is a film of secret connections; a silent web of cosmic affiliations underlies the entire movie. At awards shows, we often hear at least one acceptance speech in which the winner describes the room full of overpaid actors as their “family.” Maps to the Stars is also about a family, one that is rapidly devolving into incest and insanity. The nature of Hollywood creates a network effect which is often described as “incestuous.” Maps to the Stars literalizes that metaphor—practically every character is involved in some form of incest—and eventually turns it into something that doesn’t even seem to be about Hollywood anymore, but about some obscure cosmic energy that ties us all together. (Indeed, these connections even extend past the screen. Pattinson’s character is a driver, an inversion of his role in Cronenberg’s previous film, Cosmopolis, in which he spent the majority of the film in the back of a limo. Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska have a mother-adopted daughter relationship that echoes The Kids Are All Right.)
As a satire Maps to the Stars is often very funny. If its targets—self-involved actresses, obnoxious drug-addicted child stars, striving writers who consider their whole lives “research,”—are not particularly fresh, there is still a lot of insight into the way Hollywood operates on a personal level, particularly for women—the awards, the almost enforced catfights between actresses. Julianne Moore’s performance has a brittleness that undercuts her character’s narcissism and cruelty. It is a very funny performance but never a caricature. Havana is (quite literally) haunted by her much more famous mother. She hopes to land the same role that won her mother an Oscar. Havana lacks any frame of reference outside of her own airlocked environment. Having grown up within the incestuous world of Hollywood royalty, she has no idea what the real world is anymore.
The comedy comes as much from Cronenberg’s stone-faced direction, which imbues the film with an ethereal oddness that permeates every scene, as it does from Bruce Wagner’s expletive-laden, name-dropping screenplay. Even a scene from the shoot of an awful-looking children’s comedy called “Bad Babysitter 2” has an airless, spaced-out quality that feels as much like a DeLillo adaptation as anything in Cosmopolis. Cronenberg’s recent work has been polarizing for audiences and critics. After achieving wide acclaim for his dual meditations on violence, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg has developed a particularly idiosyncratic approach of late, an expressionless black comedy with a pulsing energy underneath. It’s not always entirely clear what Cronenberg is going for. It’s not even clear, for example, whether Bird’s performance, during which he looks perpetually lost and out of place, is bad or exactly right.
The film ends with a recitation of a few stanzas of Paul Éluard’s famous poem “Liberty,” written while Éluard was living in Nazi-occupied France. There are recurring references to the poem throughout the film, usually recited as if it were an incantation. As a paean to liberty, it echoes the film itself. If most Hollywood satires—from The Player to What Just Happened—are made by and for the Hollywood elite, Maps to the Stars seems in many ways to be made for no one but Cronenberg himself, a Hollywood outsider with only a passing affiliation with the Hollywood system, a man who, almost uniquely among directors of his level, has been able to make the films he wants in the way he wants for over 40 years. I couldn’t help thinking of Roberto Rossellini’s famous remark upon seeing Charlie Chaplin’s widely detested 1957 satire A King in New York: “It is the film of a free man.”