Maps to the Stars is not a satire. Or, at the very least, its satirical points are the least interesting things about it. Bruce Wagner’s script may have started out as a poison pen letter to the movie industry, self-important actors, teen stars and celebrity therapists, but he and director David Cronenberg have turned it into a much weirder, nastier beast. As it is, Maps to the Stars is less A Modest Proposal for Showbiz and more The Duchess of Malfi Goes to La-La Land, a Jacobean revenge story and comedic horror movie that’s as convinced of all of humanity’s madness as it is of Hollywood’s.
Of course, it gets plenty of shots in at Hollywood while it’s there. There’s Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading star and daughter of an Old Hollywood legend (Sarah Gadon). She’s convinced her mother, who died young in a fire, abused her, and she works out her therapy with TV psychologist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Weiss is the father of teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), whose bad behavior hasn’t much improved since he left rehab, and isn’t discouraged by his stage mother Cristina (Olivia Williams). Trying to make it to their level is limo driver and wannabe actor/screenwriter Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who meets and begins a relationship with Havana’s new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a badly-scarred, mysterious woman from out of town.
That only begins to scratch the surface of Wagner’s script, which is one-liner heavy but isn’t shot or edited in a way that gives them the expected punch. Rather, Cronenberg stages things a bit flatly to counteract the exaggerated world and leaves room for slight pauses. This gives Maps an odd rhythm and tone that keeps the film’s familiar situations (and occasional mustiness and Mad Libs approach to name-dropping) from feeling like another send-up of screen idols and sycophants. It’s an artificial world full of artificial takes on artificial people, but the film’s plain presentation cuts them in half, exposing the fraudulence and self-importance with which the film’s characters present themselves.
Nowhere is that more clear than with Moore’s performance, which takes advantage of Moore’s skill at playing heightened characters by having everything Havana does feel a bit…off, whether as a bid for sympathy or as an insincere congratulations. Its purposeful affectedness contrasts with Cusack, Gadon and Pattinson, all of whom give deliberately affectless performances (similar to those in Cosmopolis) that only amplify their characters’ venal behavior (though giving that same objective to a child actor is a tall order, and Bird can’t quite manage it). Only Wasikowska manages moments of real openness and human emotion, and even then her earnestness is so out-of-place in this world that it’s slightly unnerving, hinting that maybe not all is right with her either.
Maps to the Stars is also a ghost story, both metaphorically – Moore can’t escape her mother’s shadow and vies for her role in a remake of one of her movies, Wasikowska has an odd connection to the Weiss family – and literal – Gadon haunts her daughter, while Bird is plagued by a dead young girl he visited in the hospital for good press. These spirits and echoes don’t possess their earthly charges so much as they release or further stoke the brutality that was already inside them; to that end, the film is a sort of modern parallel to Cronenberg’s Shivers where the parasite is psychic rather than physical, and the releases are violent rather than sexual (though no less perversely cathartic). What begins as a screed against Hollywood becomes a story of human (and especially familial) failure, betrayal and cruelty that’s avenged in a typically Cronenbergian (read: fucked up) fashion. If Hollywood and humanity can’t be fixed, they’ll be purged.