Thursday, November 6, 2014

Movie Review: Map to the Stars

Maps to the Stars
Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: Bruce Wagner.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Havana Segrand), Mia Wasikowska (Agatha), John Cusack (Dr. Stafford Weiss), Evan Bird (Benjie Weiss), Olivia Williams (Christina Weiss), Robert Pattinson (Jerome Fontana), Kiara Glasco (Cammy), Sarah Gadon (Clarice Taggart), Dawn Greenhalgh (Genie), Jonathan Watton (Sterl Carruth), Jennifer Gibson (Starla Gent), Gord Rand (Damien Javitz), Jayne Heitmeyer (Azita Wachtel).

For the second movie in a row, David Cronenberg has made a film about empty people, living in a world of affluence that has no real meaning to it. Like his last film, Cosmopolis (2012), Maps to the Stars is in many ways a deliberating distancing film – cold, cruel and violent – and is certainly not an overly “entertaining” film. Like Cosmopolis, it has haunted me for a few days after seeing it for the first time – and I have a feeling that it will grow in my mind as time goes on, and I re-watch the film. But unlike Cosmopolis – which I enjoyed more than most – I’m not really sure that Maps to the Stars ultimately works – that it really has anything to say about its subject – Hollywood and our celebrity obsessed culture. In Cosmopolis, Cronenberg made one of the best takedowns on Wall Street greed in recent memory – casting Robert Pattinson as a emotionless void in the center, with strange people circling around him, coming and going in and out of his car, talking about money – but he has reached his endpoint. The film, despite its cold tone and deliberately odd dialogue felt relevant to what was happening in the larger world outside the movie. With Maps to the Stars however, it did not surprise me to find out that Bruce Wagner wrote the screenplay 20 years ago – and has simply been updating it periodically over the years, waiting for someone to make it. It feels like a movie that could have (and probably should have) been made in the mid-1990s – a darker, more disturbing companion piece to Robert Altman’s The Player. In 2014 however, its insights seem to be too little, too late. If it resembles any other film, it would be Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons from last year. Maps to the Stars is better – the screenplay is better written, more wide reaching and more clever, the direction is better – isolating its various characters in the frames by themselves, even when surrounded by others, and the acting is far superior. But given this is a Cronenberg film, I cannot but think it’s a little disappointing that he has simply made a better version of a not very good film from the previous year.

The film it one of those multi-character films – the ones that Altman specialized in – where a seemingly unconnected group of characters eventually come crashing into each other. Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is an aging actress, haunted by the specter of her sexually abusive mother (Sarah Gadon) – who was a far bigger star than Havana ever was. She is currently up for a new role – playing an older version of her own mother – and will do anything to get it. She needs a new “chore whore”, and her friend Carrie Fisher (playing herself in an amusing cameo) suggests a girl she met on Twitter – Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a woman whose body bares some burn scars, and has just arrived in Hollywood by bus from Florida – and immediately hires a limo, driven by Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) – who is, of course, really an actor. Odd for a woman who just arrived by bus, Agatha seems to have more than enough cash. Then there is the Weiss family – Benjie (Evan Bird), is a 15 year old child star, fresh out of rehab, who has to belittle himself in order to keep his role in the very profitable “Bad Babysitter” franchise – an act that makes him physically sick. His mother, Christina (Olivia Williams) doesn’t seem to do anything accept fuss over Benjie, and his career – even though he has another agent. His father, Stafford (John Cusack) is a massage therapist to the stars – including Havana – who is also on TV, spouting some New Age sounding empowerment bullshit. The further the film goes along, the more secrets about these people, and their screwed up past, present and future begin to come into focus.

The cast is mainly okay – I’m not quite sure what else Cusack or Williams could have done with what amounts to fairly underwritten roles, but they do what they can – Cusack in particular is rather ghoulish as Stafford. Bird overplays Benjie’s self-absorption a little bit – and it kind of plays like Wagner and Cronenberg think the audience will be shocked that such a fresh faced, innocent looking kid can be such a little shit – spouting anti-Semitic slurs, and other offensive dialogue – but unfortunately that is about the only thing he is given to do. Pattinson’s role seems almost completely unnecessary – perhaps a remnant of the many earlier drafts Wagner wrote – apparently inspired by his earlier days in Hollywood as a limo driver himself. Current Cronenberg muse, Sarah Gadon (who is showing up in pretty much every fucked up Canadian movie in the last few years) is in fine form for her few scenes as Moore’s mother – who may be a ghost, but is more likely a hallucination in her diseased mind.

There are two great performances in the movie however – by Wasikowska and Moore. Wasikowska is really the central character in the movie – a mysterious young woman, whose motives remain hazy for much of the movie – but is clearly unstable from her opening scene with Pattinson in the back of that limo (and get increasingly unstable throughout). Saying more about her character would probably give away too much – but I will say in a year that has already seen her deliver fine performances in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Richard Ayoade’s The Double and John Curran’s Tracks, she has delivered her fourth great performance this year alone- she is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses. Moore is given the showcase role of Havana – and she delivers a great performance (that has already won her a Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier this year). It would have been easier to make Havana into some sort of one-dimensional, scenery chewing ghoul – but following Cronenberg’s lead, Moore plays her character somewhat more subdued. Yes, she is shallow, superficial, self-involved monster – the kind who takes glee in getting in a role only because of a tragedy in the life of a rival, or thinks nothing of questioning Agatha on her sex life, as she sits on the toilet, or who decides to screw her boyfriend – just to be cruel. She is a monstrous character – but Moore doesn’t make her into some sort of a caricature – but of a woman who is only a slightly exaggerated version of what we see on reality TV nightly.

Movies like Maps to the Stars are one of the reasons I am glad I no longer give out star ratings on the blog – basically because I have no idea what I would assign the film. There is a lot of things of interest in the movie – I haven’t touched on its themes of incest, which Wagner and Cronenberg (somewhat unconvincingly) try to graft onto Hollywood itself. It is a deeply troubling and disturbing film – and one I know I will revisit again at some point, because it will not leave my mind. But so much of the film quite simply doesn’t work – or feels like a leftover from the 1990s, that I’m not sure the movie really works at all. It’s an interesting movie to be sure – and if it sounds interesting to you, than I definitely think you should see it. But don’t expect a wholly satisfying experience.

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