I’m not sure at what point in my life I learned that Hollywood was corrupt. I’m pretty sure it was early on, right around the time I learned that “B comes after A” and “I had hands.” The cult of celebrity (whatever that globular phrase means) is an exhausted subject, and the premise of David Cronenberg’s latest, Maps to the Stars. But content is like a vagina: just because it’s been heavily used doesn’t put it out of service. To the director’s credit, the film successfully tries to reinvigorate tired material through a crafty cocktail of genre: melodrama, satire, incest fable. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you feel. But Maps to the Stars pulls easy punches at Hollywood’s most exposed groins. Despite all appearances, the film is just too enamored with the pain that made its ridiculous story possible.
Satire is one of the hardest genres to get right. Think of the difference between a poetry reading and a stand-up comedy special. No one will ever say that “Billy Collins really bombed tonight” or “Maya Angelou TANKED” (except like, three terrible people I went to college with). It’s a demanding form, and satire in particular requires that you be contemporary, specific, and not-dumb. Few people can do it well.
So you have to give props to Cronenberg for going after the people who pay his bills. While the script’s author, Bruce Wagner, argues that his piece isn’t satire (“Contrary to critics easy characterization, it doesn’t have a satirical bone in its messy body”), I actually think he’s wrong about his own work (it happens). Maps is very much a sometimes-clever critique of the industry’s grandiosity. Sure, it mixes in melodrama and some outrageously random molesting ghosts. But it ultimately lobs familiar punches at familiar victims and half-dead targets: the bratty child star. The Scientologist. The rich family hiding dark ghosts in their Crate and Barrel closet. “Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you have it easy,” says every book, ever.
The film opens with Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a predatory schizophrenic burn victim (I wish that was hyperbole) on a bus en route to Los Angeles. Once there, she meets Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a handsome and aloof limo driver who she pays hundreds of dollars to drive her around town and show her “maps to the stars.” Something’s not right with Agatha, but before we can actually discover what it is, Maps cuts to Bieber-esque child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Benjie actually delivers some of the most hilarious lines of the film, but they come at a cost. It’s the essential Dawson’s Creek/Fault in Our Stars paradox: writers and (viewers) love to give teenagers perfectly snarky little bits of dialogue, even though 99.8% of all teenagers – worldwide – are idiots. Still, Benjie brings a considerable comedic energy to the film, before it devolves into this:
Fire. Suicide pacts. Molestation. By Agatha, at Benjie. Turns out she’s his sister, they used to maybe bone, until she roofied him. THEN she burned the house down. THEN she went to a mental hospital. Bye Agatha! Poor Benjie. Benjie hears a ghost. Benjie sees a ghost. THEN Julianne Moore sees a ghost. It’s her mom! THEN she has a threesome! With the mom. Who’s dead. Remember? PLOP. A child falls into a pool and drowns. BAM. A dog is shot in the head. By Benjie. He has a pill problem. WHOOSH. A fire. Everyone dies. But Julianne Moore gets a part in a play! Gooooooo Julianne Moore!
Listen guys, I like to think I’m a tolerant person. But there’s only so much I can watch of incestuous schizophrenic child stars before I start reconsidering breathing. Can you imagine if this was (as Wagner argued it was) NOT satire? That’s scary.
There’s actually so much tragedy in Maps that you begin to wonder whether the writer even cares about its victims, or if he’s just using their trauma as emotional gimmicks. Nothing pulls heartstrings, or wins nominations, like incest and suicide pacts. Think of Still Alice or The Theory of Everything: mediocre movies made successful by virtue of their (literal) brain damage. Even Wagner’s essay about the film in The Guardian made me queasy:
“The beautiful catatonic actress we drove up the coast.”
“Sometimes the dead are more . . . enviable than the living”
“Of the mutilation, both real and metaphorical, sometimes caused by fame”
Have you ever seen someone with catatonia? If you haven’t, let me tell you: your go-to adjective wouldn’t be beautiful. Maybe this is just camp. But in both the essay and the movie, you feel something different. Maps to the Stars romanticizes the mentally ill and their darkness. Agatha and Benjie aren’t real characters. They’re incest victims, sexual predators, half-baked half-sketched people-types.
There is one glorious exception in all of this, and that’s Julianne Moore. She, unlike anyone else here, gets at what is the core of all dramatic tragedy. Not fire, not murder: isolation. A B-list celebrity whose career threatens to crumble at any moment, Moore (playing Havana Segrand) will do almost anything to get to the top. When a fellow actor’s baby dies in a pool, forcing her to withdraw from a film, Moore squeals with delight. She will now get to play the leading role in the remake of a movie her mother once made (before she died in a fire, or something). Moore is funny and smart but very rarely charming. She is self-absorbed but isolated, self-loving and self-loathing, surface-level sane but almost-totally broken. Maps is populated by reductive character types, so Moore does what very few actors can do. Goes big, plays human and almost literally – saves the movie.
Early reviews for the film were almost uniformly positive, but I wonder what people would think if it wasn’t attached to the name Cronenberg. Fans of Cosmopolis and Crash might approach Maps hoping for the same high-level drama imagined by the same high-level brain. But the comedy is uneven here: sometimes biting, occasionally hilarious, but more often than not – familiar. The melodrama borders emotional voyeurism. A dog gets shot. In a movie that’s supposed to mourn the victims of Hollywood, Wagner and Cronenberg are the paparazzis of pain. All they care about is the shot.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.