Nasty, bitter and literally bludgeoning, Maps to the Stars isn’t a Hollywood spoof or satire – it’s an evisceration. It’s as if the film takes place after the cautionary tales of A Star is Born and Mulholland Drive have been told, and promptly ignored. The characters here are squirming in an incestuous bed of lies, wealth and emotional insecurity from which there seems to be no escape.
I mean incestuous literally. Written by Bruce Wagner and directed by David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars turns on three central motifs: incest, fire and disfigured flesh. (Did I mention it was directed by David Cronenberg?) According to the movie, familiarity breeds self-annihilation – indeed, for one character, it arrives via self-immolation.
There is so much pain to go around that Maps to the Stars is an ensemble film, featuring the likes of Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson. Even so, Moore quickly makes the movie her own. As Havana Segrand, a middle-aged actress fighting for a part that she hopes will preserve her fading career, she wavers between cruel outbursts of ego and crippling paranoia. This is heightened by the role she’s auditioning for – the same part her abusive mother played some 30 years earlier, before dying in a fire. The plans for a remake cause Havana to experience surreal visions, in which she’s visited by her mother (a scary Sarah Gadon).
Moore is fearless, delivering two scenes – a breakdown in an early therapy session and a simmering, prolonged reaction shot to a voicemail sharing bad news – that could end up on her career retrospective reel. Some sort of damage is usually at the center of her best performances, either damage she suffers or damage she inflicts, and there’s plenty of both here.
Some sort of damage is usually at the center of Moore’s best performances.
Havana’s mother isn’t the only ghost haunting Maps to the Stars. Early on, a raging monster of a child star (Evan Bird) makes an obligatory visit to a sick fan in the hospital. The girl dies a few days later and begins appearing to Benjie, the star, in the night. Benjie’s agent mother (a taut Williams) and self-help guru father (a funny, eerie Cusack) are too busy with their own secrets to notice, including one involving an incident between Benjie and his sister when he was very young.
There are more elements – including Wasikowska as an unnerving burn victim who becomes Havana’s personal assistant – but that gives you a good taste of the movie’s toxic brew. This is so merciless a portrayal of the venality of show business that you wonder if everyone involved made it just to settle some personal scores.
Even so – and especially given Cronenberg’s track record – the more disturbing elements of Maps to the Stars don’t really stick as much as they should, especially when things begin to really fall apart in the film’s final third. Much of the violence is predictable, and one shocking scene is undone by poor CGI. For all the discomfiting things in the movie, there was really only one moment that sent a chill down my spine. It involves Moore (of course), whose Havana celebrates a career victory by dancing on the grave of a drowned kid. “We’re fire and he’s water!” she chortles to her befuddled assistant. Maps to the Stars watches her – watches Hollywood – burn.