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.