Hollywood has been many different things onscreen. We've had portrayals of La La Land as a place where magic happens (Singin’ In The Rain), as a city of deep corruption (Chinatown, The Long Goodbye), as a quirky, “gotta love it” locale (LA Story), and as a sun-soaked fantasy land of douchebag wish fulfillment (Entourage). It should surprise no one that David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars presents the vain and vapid unculture of Los Angeles as a flat out disease, an outsider’s view of a city full of people rotting from the inside. It's about as realistic a view of Hollywood as 1991's Naked Lunch presented of Morocco, a comparison that reminds us that it feels disingenuous at best to ever expect realism from Cronenberg.
The film’s plot is almost cartoonishly satirical, and coalesces in such a roundabout, gradual way that just about any detail might be considered a spoiler. Suffice it to say the film follows three individuals and the supporting casts of their lives: Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13 year-old child actor just out of rehab and nearing the end of his sell-by date; Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fragile star past her prime who’s just lost the role of playing her own mother to another actress; and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), an unpolished plebe with burn scars who uses a celebrity Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher to insert herself into the lives of the beautiful people. In true ensemble soap fashion, they’ve all got secrets, and as Benjie’s dad, self-help guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), says in the title of his bestselling book, secrets kill.
Maps To The Stars retains the chilliness Cronenberg displayed in his early experimental work, then resurrected for 2012’s Cosmopolis. But that might be all that connects this film to his past filmography. Where A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises found strange new ways to explore the filmmaker's obsession with identity and transformation, Maps To The Stars isn't as easily catalogued, its self-absorbed characters on an entirely different journey than previous Cronenberg protagonists. If we're forced to put them in "Cronenbergian" terms, it's tempting to say that where his past characters' arcs were about transformation and transcendence, this new batch is a stagnant cell mass, slowly turning cancerous, and the condition is terminal.
But that's forcing a familiar vocabulary onto a conversation that is - for Cronenberg, at least - pretty new. At the forefront of this frontier is the location. From the opening frames, the Toronto intellectual presents a sour, hateful vision of a bleached-bland L.A., a city as bereft of color as it is of culture. Nothing here would look good on a postcard, and that flat ugliness is a reflection of the people who infest it. Our protagonists are selfish, ugly monsters who mouth empty platitudes about Buddhism in one moment, only to do a literal victory dance in the next when a drowned child opens up a career opportunity. (For context, this is a film that hitches its rooting interest to a character who's revealed early on to be a schizophrenic pyromaniac.) Cronenberg’s Hollywood is a shrine to emptiness, peopled exclusively with empty people, pursuing empty things, and most of them not even sure why they’re doing any of it. Their inhumanity even extends to subtle visual cues: one character's big break has him playing a space alien with bleached blonde hair, and aging child star Benjie’s gangly frame (and DP Peter Suschitzky’s lenses) make him look almost alien, his unusual physicality accenting the inherent “wrongness” of his child star existence.
Cronenberg places his characters on opposite ends of the Hollywood spectrum - the successful and the nobodies - but they all come across as variations of the same alien species. So while it’d be easy to say success has sucked the soul out of Havana and Benjie, the nobodies and wannabes in the film suggest they’re all pretty much inhuman. Limo driver and aspiring actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson) is the least malevolent of the bunch, but he seems eager and empty enough to be pulled along the current of whoever’s moving through the frame (or offering him sex). He's the kind of L.A. denizen who thinks about converting to Scientology as a career move. At one point, Agatha is literally putting words in his mouth, recreating a scene from a film in which Havana’s mother (Sarah Gadon) starred years ago before dying in a fire.
Maps To The Stars is an admittedly frustrating watch. Though Cronenberg has left horror behind, he seems to have abandoned with it the brisk pacing he learned in the '70s while making tax shelter exploitation films. At 112 minutes, Maps is one of the director’s longest, and that length is accented by a script that is nearly entirely scene after scene of dialogue. That dialogue is a sticking point for some; If you did a shot of liquor every time someone name-drops a real or fictional celebrity in this film, you might not make it to the thirty-minute mark. No one in the film talks unless they’re talking about someone. You can’t deny that moments of the film feel like a pale imitation of 1992’s The Player, mixing the film’s characters with real people. The already-fuzzy line is further blurred as we watch recent Oscar® Winner Julianne Moore (who’s fantastic here, by the way) play an awards-hungry star who behaves monstrously behind the scenes before turning up on televised interviews, looking and sounding a whole lot like the real-life Julianne Moore.
But it’s no accident that the “inside” banter is so prevalent. Cronenberg is presenting us with a separate society, if not an entirely new species. The film’s “have-nots” use celebrity name-dropping as their common language, trying to connect with (and impress) one another, and the Hollywood “haves” take this mode of communicating so far up their own asses they seem to be speaking another language altogether. The celebrity name checks become so egregious that one wonders if Cronenberg could even know all the names being dropped. But that might be the point. Imagine the endless industry chatter as heard by a cultural outsider and it starts to sound like gibberish. There are some not invalid criticisms that the film's cynical take on Hollywood is tired fish in a shopworn barrel. But you also have to consider who's doing the shooting. To be fair, screenwriter Bruce Wagner grew up in LA, and worked as a limo driver for the rich & famous. But before now, Cronenberg hasn't made a single film in Hollywood (or anywhere in the U.S.); Maps To The Stars, with its parade of hateful, shallow and downright alien characters, feels like his statement as to why. This is Hollywood as seen by a man who’s been making successful feature films without the town’s help for five decades, and if you're forming a line of people annoyed at the incestuous, self-absorbed culture seen in Maps To The Stars, I have a hunch Cronenberg would be at the front of that line.
It would be hard to call this film a complete success; Olivia Williams’ stage mom character is sort of underexplored and sidelined, as is Cusack’s self-help guru, and together they carry the film’s biggest secret. There's no satisfying arc to latch onto, the group downward spiral feeling closer to the quietly bleak endings of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. And the film is a pretty dry affair - until it's not, as Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner place these talky scenes of exposition in situations which, increasingly, leave reality behind. (In one scene, Havana, sitting on the toilet and taking a noisy shit, has a banal chat with Agatha about her boyfriend, wiping her ass as she asks about their sex life.) From there, holes are fucked (to use the parlance of the film), children are drowned and strangled, and skulls are split. Also, there might be ghosts. There’s some other stuff going on in here about Hollywood lubing up its machine with the blood of its children, and an incest subplot that may or may not be the ultimate comment on the self-absorption of L.A. culture. Cronenberg is no moralist, though, and I suspect he’s more interested in observing than diagnosing or finger-waving. What he’s observing may be old hat to some, but Cronenberg seems well aware it’s his maiden trip down a well-traveled road, and if you’re down for the ride, it's worth tagging along to see the sights he discovers when he veers off the map.
Maps To The Stars opened this weekend in limited release and on VOD.