Tidily packaged as Hollywood hyperbole, Maps to the Stars is a children’s story. Not directed toward children, mind you (though some uncalled-for poop jokes would suggest otherwise), but in fact a lithium-nightmare of make-believe. The setting: a Neverland where growing older is career hara-kiri. His first outing away from motherland Canada, David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner enter the bush of ghosts with cold vision. What results is the barbed, repulsive complexity you’d from the body-centric auteur, but his exhaustive thematic explorations and ensemble rallying prove a dangerous method.
Cronenberg’s fixation on monstrous childbirth is well documented in The Brood, Eastern Promises, and The Fly, but monstrous childhoods less so. Here, he starts with Havana (Juliane Moore), who screeches and whines her way into a studio remake of her nubile mother’s (Sarah Gadon) star-making film. Like many in the biz, she can’t go alone, name-checking the likes of Garry Marshall as a means of hand-holding her way out of the treacherous effects aging has on Hollywood women (“menstrual” being the buzzword for anyone past twenty-three).
As Cronenberg has mentioned, Moore has prospered in her career despite (and because of) her age, and her resilience is adeptly overturned into absolute ugliness. It’s the ultra-dark foil to her understated turn in Todd Haynes’ own female-centric, body-horror/melodrama Safe. Her childish entitlement too much for her to handle on her own, Havana recruits Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), fresh off the bus from a Florida mental hospital, as her “chore whore.” Agatha, adorned with long black gloves and clothes to hide arson burns, has some big Hollywood dreams of her own.
Aided by an actor/screenwriter/chauffeur (Robert Pattinson), arguably Wagner’s surrogate (the scribe being a former chauffeur himself, and thus the lone sympathetic character), Agatha visits the site where her childhood home stood — before she burned it to the ground, of course. Just one stop of many to find her brother Benjie (Evan Bird), the faux-Bieber with a talent for verbal evisceration. Protected by a stage mom (Olivia Williams) and a New Age therapy guru dad (Cusack), Benjie is to be kept from Agatha’s unpredictable, slithery eccentricity, or else the cycle of Hollywood inbreeding continues.
Incest is the theme most pointedly addressed in Maps, and though subtlety isn’t Cronenberg’s bag anyway, being too on-the-nose isn’t admirable. True, the “who-you-know” fundamentals of dynasty-led Hollywood are crucial to Cronenberg’s thesis, but Wagner’s dialogue spells too much out. Following the revolving door policy ofCosmopolis (TMT Review), a film with similar meditations on reputation and obscurity, the ensemble work is first-rate, but ultimately overcrowded. He’s been more profound with fewer players. Narrower focus is Cronenberg’s ally; expanding it shows growth on his part, but makes the more ghostly portions feel padded. Considering its director’s reputation as a filmmaker many paces ahead, Maps feels several wheezy steps behind. The Hollywood-ghost-story canon already bested by Wilder and Lynch, there’s little left to be added, and considering Wagner dusted off a decades-old script, the tweakings necessary to contemporize the satire are too thin for freshness.