Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams
If the inhabitants of Hollywood are even half as repulsive as David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars perceives them to be, then no wonder it has taken him this long to make a film there. Suffusing his own distinguishing directorial traits with a script by Bruce Wagner that echoes previously lauded Hollywood mockeries such as Sunset Boulevard and The Player, the Canadian director’s first film to be partly shot in the U.S. is a satirically sharp examination of life in Tinseltown.
Aesthetically, Cronenberg crafts an initially enticing vision of Hollywoodland. Peter Suschitzky’s venomous camera slithers through a labyrinth of picturesquely perfect mansions, which all glisten under the gaze of eternal sunshine. However, this is not a land of heavenly warmth. Beneath its seductive outer layers lies a perpetually burning hell that’s inhabited by various organic incarnations of Beelzebub himself.
Maps’ sole focus is on the cold hearts who cower within this repellent inner sanctum of stardom. Stafford (John Cusack) is a successful psychologist who treats high-profile celebrity patients, such as fading actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). While his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) manages their son Benjie (Evan Bird), a teen sensation who is currently trying to get his career back on track. Meanwhile Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), Cristina and Stafford’s mysteriously shunned daughter, has just been released from a Florida sanatorium and returned to Hollywood intent on reconnecting with her family.
Using the characters that lurk at the core of Wagner’s wickedly witty screenplay as a guide, Cronenberg proceeds to explore the dark reality of life in the Hollywood Hills. It’s a world that looks familiar, but feels entirely alien. Here the children talk like adults, who in comparison act like children. Julianne Moore’s Havana cries and shouts like a child whenever she doesn’t get her way and then skips around singing Bananarama when she does, even if getting what she wants has come at the expense of someone else’s tragedy. Contrasted to this is Evan Bird’s Benjie, who channels Justin Bieber’s unlikeable petulance as he is forced to deal with the very adult issue of living a clean and sober lifestyle having spent time in rehab.
It’s a reality that should feel completely unnatural, and yet you sense that it is almost entirely organic. The performances, of course, are key. Each one is perfectly played, embodying the abhorrent narcissism that’s rife amongst the Hollywood elite. Crucially though, none of the characters feel like cardboard caricatures. Each one has the burden of their own insecurities, which makes them despicably real.
Cronenberg has forged a credible career by refusing to conform to convention, and here he launches a fierce attack on the repugnant members of the society that surround the cinematic institution. Pervaded with a booming score courtesy of Howard Shore and sudden moments of the director’s trademark body shock violence, Maps dryly shuns the bureaucracy of the Hollywood studios, and bitterly reflects on the egotistical attitudes forever rife within this ill-fated land of dreams.
Even on repeat viewings, Maps To The Stars does remain too cynical to leave the lasting impact that Cronenberg would perhaps want. But its bitingly satirical approach is impossible to resist when watching. Cronenberg once called Hollywood a world that was “seductive and repellent at the same time”, and this film of his effortlessly embodies that sentiment.