Only in Hollywoo

Well, I can at least say one thing. Maps to the Stars is a David Cronenberg film, alright. It’s got that acidic venom towards its subjects, it has that hyper-real feel and it gets bordering creepy at points. It’s not filmed in Canada – for once, Cronenberg had the conviction to shoot the majority of the film on-location, but it’s absolutely jaded and mystifying enough to fall into the Cronenberg canon.

It keeps reminding me of how immediately alienating Cronenberg’s post-body horror phase has had to grow on me, though. Since A History of Violence onward, I’ve get a hell of a lot to think about from his films… Have to look over some of the incoherence that will constantly be present, tread softly on what I’m meant to take seriously and what I could possibly laugh at, and follow along with what is almost always an unorthodox structure of storytelling.

So, that’s how much of a bitter pill to swallow Maps to the Stars was when I first saw at Cannes and having seen it again in Miami now that it got its US release, I’m still not quite sure I digested it all. But there have been a bit more pieces I was able to find hidden within the film. I’ve been able to click on what’s just part of the film’s biting humor and what is meant to be a shock.

In either case, the movie’s primary focus is on the trials of the Weiss family – Father Stafford (John Cusack) is a celebrity therapist (in both meanings of that phrase) whose best known patient is the close-to-dust movie star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore in a part that won her Best Actress at Cannes), son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a 13-year-old child star who you can probably figure everything about from the fact that he is fresh out of rehab at that age and has carried all the worst traits rehab ideally gets rid of, and mother Cristina (Olivia Williams) is stuck managing their son and taking that job very very seriously. Paralleling this screwed-up houshold, Segrand deals with her own familial issues by both having Stafford try to soothe her psychological and emotional issues with the possibility that her own late movie legend mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) might have sexually abused her. And because Segrand is desperate enough to be in the limelight again that she’d go with some bad ideas, the real mother of her bad ideas is trying to secure the same role that made her mother famous in the upcoming remake of that film.

Meanwhile, a woman who is largely covered in either black latex or burn scars by the name of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) comes to Hollywoodland and takes on a job as Segrand’s assistant, while taking a more active interest in the Weisses. And it’s pretty clear from the start that she’s going to be the monkey wrench in these gears that aren’t exactly rotating correctly.

So seems almost plotless, right? I swear I’ve made it sound worse than it is.

See, between Cronenberg and the writer of the film Bruce Wagner, the film constantly dedicates itself to a sort of freestyle construct between its five major character focuses (although I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim Cristina herself is more an accessory to Stanford, Agatha, and Benjie’s tales than a center for her own) and constantly anchors itself by little visual or thematic keys – the poem Liberte by Paul Eluard, the laugh out loud “you better be fucking kidding me, Cronenberg” presence of Carrie Fisher (she is friends with Agatha… through Twitter. Oh my word.), the concept of incest, and all that other icky icky jazz to provide an absurd and hellish amount of skeletons in the closet of people who live their lives by performing however they need to – to be a powerhouse of a guru, to get the hell out of rehab, to keep characters the hell away from each other, and so on.

And that might explain why most of the characters feel less genuine when they’re giving off pleasantries, allowing the actors portraying them to get caught acting than when we get to the ugliness behind them. Cusack, in one of the few points of his career where I find myself standing him, is the posterboy of smug self-confidence while reciting psychological textbook bullshit even he doesn’t seem to believe. He actually reminds me of Kirk Cameron’s performance in Left Behind and it’s kind of great to have that feeling here. Moore… Well, by now we kind of know Moore is capable of whatever is asked of her as an actress, even and especially when characters are meant to be washed-up balls of contempt and pathos all at once. And Wasikowska’s never not creepy in her cold representation of false innocence. Her costuming and very subtle makeup work (on the first screening it took me a while to catch the burn scars, in spite of being in plain sight) actually really compliment her performance, making her come off more as an inhuman creation of horrible events and terrible circumstance than a person who had a chance at living normally. Only Robert Pattinson’s chaffeur character is the person on screen devoid of any bullshit in all of his aloofness.

And one of my favorite things about Wagner is that the ugly truth behind these characters is constantly alluded to subtly enough that we can guess well enough where the film is getting to and so we don’t feel as much cheated when pretty much everything in the second half of the film, where all the secrets are revealed and all the stories come to a ghastly end for everyone involved, is done absolutely unceremoniously and even moments are… sort of “caught-being-a-movie” moments, if you get what I’m saying. Like Maps to the Stars really starts to let up its seams as a motion picture and we’re catching them as the movie slows to an end.

That said, we still probably will feel cheated and one can’t begrudge an initial audience member like me who literally said “Is that fucking it?” once the credits rolled. The structure, whether you are aware of its basis in poetry or not, will leave the film to feel like a slog as it winds down. And sure, there’s always the humor, the cast, and the understanding from the get-go of what the movie is about – not hiding its themes in its sleeves but being extremely overt about its disregard for Hollywood – may give some comfort to that slogging feel. Whether or not it outright saves the film for me is just what makes me conflicting feelings about the film such a pain. So, it should be clear I still haven’t decided how I fully feel.

Well done, Cronenberg. Like I said, you gave me a lot to think about.

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