Review: Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska struggle to stay afloat in turgid ‘Maps To The Stars’

CANNES — Last time I was here on the Croisette, David Cronenberg was here with “Cosmopolis,” and his son Brandon Cronenberg was here with “Antiviral.” It was interesting seeing Brandon make a film that felt like it came from the young and squishy heart of his father, while David made a movie that felt like a genuine explosion of anger without a clear target to land on.

It is easy to say that filmmakers lose steam as they work, that age and success mellow even the most genuinely furious artists, but I don't think that's the case with Cronenberg. After all, since the year 2000, he's made three films that I think are all very strong in their own way and very different than anything he'd done before. “Spider” is an upsetting glimpse into a damaged mind, one that traps us inside looking out rather than trying to explain or excuse. “A History Of Violence” did an exceptional job of digging into the secret faces that even the most intimate of married couples can hide from each other. “Eastern Promises” is just a lean, mean, solid crime thriller with a truly sordid side. And while I don't care for “A Dangerous Method” at all, at least I can understand why Cronenberg would want to tackle a story about the birth of the language we use to dissect modern sexual pathology.

“Cosmopolis” did not work for me, though, and I think part of it is that the material is so internal. I would imagine there was some element of a dare involved for Cronenberg, tackling a book as film-unfriendly as “Cosmopolis” and trying to conquer it, but even landing at the moment it did, with people feeling the anti-banking sentiment more than ever before, it still felt like a movie that muddled its message, and the jump to digital photography didn't do the director any favors. It was a genuinely ugly movie, and not on a thematic level, but just in terms of being able to express a visual idea.

“Maps To The Stars” has some of the same issues that “Cosmopolis” did, and at this point, I feel like some of the blame has to fall on Peter Suschitzky, whose work on films like “Crash,” “Dead Ringers” and “The Empire Strikes Back” is above reproach. I don't get it. I look at these images in this film, and I can't imagine this is what anyone had in mind. Not Cronenberg. Not Suschitzky. Not screenwriter Bruce Wagner. It is flat and aesthetically dull, and there is nothing about it that evokes Los Angeles. Not the LA of the wealthy, not the LA of the poor, not the LA of the broken dreamers.

Wagner has made a healthy career for himself by savaging Los Angeles and its denizens in print. He grew up in LA, but not to famous parents. He worked on the fringes of the business in bookstores and driving a limousine, and he spent much of his time in his 20s writing unproduced films. That eventually led him to writing stories about the hollow men and women of Hollywood, and books like “Force Majeure,” “I'm Losing You,” and “Still Holding” have an authentic if surreal voice, a real understanding of the currency of power in and around the industry. Wagner seems particularly fascinated by the characters on the fringe, the people who are drawn to LA by all of its promise, only to linger here, rotting without even realizing they're already dead. There is a powerfully bitter streak to his work, which seems completely earned, and I hoped he and Cronenberg would prove to be a potent pairing.

Not so much. I think “Maps To The Stars” is more entertaining (in a decidedly ghoulish way) than “Cosmopolis” was, but I think it is just as hobbled, both thematically and dramatically. One of the things that I find most immediately mystifying about the film is that, considering all the people involved and their collective decades and decades of experience in and around Hollywood, it curiously feels like they're describing a place they have only a passing knowledge of, a place they know mainly by reputation and fantasy. I've lived and worked in Los Angeles since 1990, and I don't recognize the city in this film.

There's something bubbling under the surface that is interesting, and when you're watching a movie about how incestuous and literally inbred Hollywood is, there's a decided charge to seeing Carrie Fisher show up as herself, but Wagner isn't just a satirist. I think he genuinely feels for the monsters he creates, and over the course of his various books, he seems to have genuine sympathy for the people who take a run at the wall, only to smash their brains out against it, and he seems more disappointed by the various moral failures that drive the successful than angry about them.

In “Maps To The Stars,” a young girl named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) rides into town on a bus, then walks outside to find the limo she hired, which is being driven by Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer. She yammers on about how she's friends with Carrie Fisher and she's going to help her write a book and she wants to buy a map to see some movie star houses. In particular, she wants to see the place where Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) grew up. He's a 13-year-old superstar thanks to a hit comedy movie called “Bad Babysitter,” which Agatha claims was based on her.

The thing is, Agatha might not be completely crazy. She sounds like every lunatic fresh off the bus from Florida, but there seems to be some truth to what she says. The film digresses so we can meet Benjie and his family. His father is a book-publishing super-therapist who seems like he has all the answers, and as written, I think there's a sharp edge to the character. John Cusack is the wrong fit for Stafford, though. As much as I like Cusack, he doesn't have that same sort of intense charisma that you would need to peddle the sort of bullshit that he passes off as wisdom. One of his celebrity clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a giant bundle of neurotic defects who is chasing what she considers the best part of her life, a remake of the film that got her mother, Clarice Taggert (Sarah Gadon), nominated for an Oscar before she burned to death.

Watching how everything ends up being related is what drives “Maps To The Stars,” but I don't feel like any of the reveals pack a punch or illuminate or even offer up a particular viewpoint. There's a lot of energy dedicated to the way people process memory as literal ghosts, and I'm not kidding when I say that incest and inbreeding is a big part of the puzzle. It feels like Wagner and Cronenberg want to make a point about the way the industry eats its young, and there are a few moments involving Benjie Weiss that feel like they're at least on the dartboard. Julianne Moore seems to be the one person in the film that truly gets the tone right, playing Havana like a person walking a tightrope over a yawning pit of psychosis, her every emotion bubbling up and threatening to knock her off.

Considering how large his role was in “Cosmopolis,” I was surprised to see Pattinson play only a few scenes here. He's fine, but there's nothing about the role that is particularly memorable, and I don't think anyone else would have gotten anything more out of it. Wasikowska also fares as well as anybody could playing this material, and I like that she's got a fairly difficult, multi-layered character to play. She is a fiendishly talented actor, and her portrayal of Agatha is better than the film around her. She seems to get the weird, bruised heart of this girl and as she reveals her secrets, little by little, she makes the frankly incredible plot seem credible. We're going to be seeing amazing work by her for decades to come, and like Moore, she seems to have a better handle on the material than even Cronenberg himself.

Aside from the ugly, off-putting cinematography, there is a sequence late in the film involving a special effect that is so bad that if I were a distributor, I would demand that the entire thing be redone. It's so bad that I couldn't tell exactly what was supposed to be happening. It's so bad that I can't believe that someone who has made movies before this, much less someone as accomplished as Cronenberg, signed off on it as a finished shot in a film designed to be shown to people.

“Maps To The Stars” isn't awful. It's not the worst film he's ever made. But it is a pretty crushing disappointment. I may not discuss his work often, but I consider Cronenberg to be an essential modern director. The films of his that I love, which is the majority of them, are genuinely important and in many ways, I feel like film has had to catch up to him. What a shame, then, that once it did, he seems to have run out of things to say.

“Maps To The Stars” will arrive in theaters later this year, most likely.