Most renowned for his body horror films Maps To The Stars’ director David Cronenberg has, in more recent times, taken a keener interest in all things psychological. Or perhaps psychotic would be a better description, as since the turn of the millennium Cronenberg’s films have focused much more on people’s dark sides rather than the icky ooze and blood that comes out of them.
For a man who has thus far managed to avoid ever making a film in Hollywood, Maps To The Stars feels like the most logical step for him; a film that lifts a satirically funny and brutally scathing lid on Tinseltown. The film follows two key strands, the first being of fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) who is haunted by the ghost of her mother and desperate to land the part in the remake of her mother’s biggest role. Along the way she hires Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a girl suffering from burn scars in town to visit her family. Meanwhile the Weiss family is a typical Hollywood powerhouse. Father Stafford (John Cusack) is a self-help guru, mother Christina (Olivia Williams) an agent and young son Benjie (Evan Bird) a jumped-up child actor just coming out of rehab.
Over the course of the film these darkly disturbed characters will meet and clash, all the while trying to maintain their perfect Hollywood smile and praying that no one sees them for what they truly are.
Cronenberg tackles the subject with a typically dry and dulled colour pallet, this is not a glamorous Hollywood but a vapid one; a town that seems to hide a dirty little secret behind every door and a narcissistic sociopath just looking to exploit it. It’s frequently darkly funny, Cronenberg’s bleak sense of humour, which has coursed through all his work, is very much present and correct. But the problem is the way this humour is executed within the script. It relies too heavily on an over-the-top melodrama, meaning that all of the characters feel like they’ve been plucked from a soap opera.
This is of course the point but there is a very large and daunting shadow hanging over Maps To The Stars in the shape of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The two films put Hollywood and it’s fake, ego driven ways beneath the microscope but Lynch’s film did it with both comedy and genuine terror. Maps doesn’t do that, despite often using a similar sound design to Lynch’s effort, and often feels too incoherent in juggling all the themes and characters to ever sit right. Perhaps this is an unfair assessment; the film, while set in Hollywood, is much more about the damaging affect parents have on their child, a film which gives no end of credence to Philip Larkin’s sentiment “They f*ck you up your mum and dad”.
That said it is always watchable thanks to a cast of excellent performances. Cusack is clearly relishing playing against his charming type, his Stafford is a sly manipulator, a man always looking to turn a situation to his advantage and Cusack plays him with a wonderful sense of self-loathing, a hunched over walk that makes it clear how much he loathes even himself. Evan Bird is wonderfully deplorable as the Justin Bieber like teen-star, even managing to find ways of injecting a sense of self-aware insecurity into the role. Wasikowska is typically radiant, quietly spoken she’s the very picture of modern celebrity fan until her darker side, something you’re always suspicious of, is revealed. Even then she radiates a grace-under-fire mentality that is delightfully wicked. But it is Julianne Moore who boisterously steels the show. Her Havana is a repulsive character, all perfect smiles when needed and then foul-mouthed monster to those around her for whom she needs no pretence. It’s a big performance, a flamboyant but scarily believable portrayal of a woman consumed by her own vanity and personal history.
Never quite reaching the highs often seen from Cronenberg, Maps To The Stars is nonetheless a creepy and unsettling melodrama which, if nothing else, may have many people thinking twice about pursuing fame, and that can only be seen as a good thing.