David Cronenberg’s work, particularly in the latter part of his career, often harshly critiques the toxicity that pervades the world around him. His divisive 2012 film Cosmopolis, an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novella, was a searing attack on the financial structures which led to the collapse so much and hardship. It will be no surprise if audiences and critics are similarly divided in their response to Cronenberg’s latest film Maps to the Stars, which opened the Canberra International Film Festival last week with its Australian premiere.
Maps to the Stars examines a range of characters who have been chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood system. Ageing actresses, wide-eyed celebrity-culture obsessives, struggling actors, high-powered therapists, pushy showbiz mums and obnoxious child megastars all populate this most glamorous of places. Eventually the paths of all these characters crash into one another, sending wreckage flying.
This is Hollywood as a mythical rather than physical landscape. This space of wannabes, chasing their dreams and over-rich tabloid kids crashing cars drunk. But it also hones in on the hard luck stories that the tabloids and paparazzi rarely glimpse. The pain of someone who has made it and then lost it (a theme also explored in the CIFF 2014 standout The Congress), conveyed through the exceptional performance of Julianne Moore. The palatial houses where deals are made or begged for, and where loneliness reigns. Not content to simply show the unbridled lust for power that festers here, Cronenberg uses a number of incestuous relationships, presumably to call to mind the incestuous nature of ‘playing the game’ in Hollywood. Maps to the Stars makes its points about the nature of Hollywood and the vacuousness of much that occurs there plainly. Essentially that many people there are shallow or do terrible things to others. However it does not present these ideas in a particularly subtle or nuanced way, nor does it add anything particularly new to them.
Mention of an ageing starlet character conjures up numerous interpretations and expectations. With her supreme performance, Julianne Moore inhabits, elevates and breaks down all of those, at least when she does not seem constrained by the film’s weak script. Wasikowska, in a tough role, exudes an energy that makes you wonder exactly what drives the motivations that lie beneath. Are they dangerous, naive or are they borne out of the physical damage on her body. Indeed everyone in the ensemble cast is good - John Cusack and Robert Pattinson are classy performers, and it shows here. Even a lesser name such as Evan Bird, playing a cocky child star, is excellent, making you want to slap him the throughout the entire film.
Maps to the Stars never progresses smoothly; it’s stilted, in both dialogue and narrative. Some dialogue, which is intended as heightened Hollywood speak, feels like a surface trimming, failing to advance the themes that the main plot points serve up. With no single character journey under focus, the film also lacks a core narrative thrust. Much of what is occurring is at least partially shielded by the incomprehensibility that pervades much of the film. Occasionally that gives it a nice mysterious charm, but more often than not it just frustrates. There is a thriller aspect tacked on to the film, but it never manages to take hold.
It’s a Cronenberg film, so there is much to be engaged with and provoked by in Maps to the Stars. Unfortunately there is little subtlety in how that is achieved and a sheen of incomprehensibility makes this a hard film to like.
by special guest reviewer
Tim @beermovie Hoar