Featuring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Bruce Wagner
Movie website: mapstothestarsfilm.com/
Verdict: A savage, hateful, slash-and-burn satire targeting Hollywood that will appeal to the like-minded, while likely repulsing others.
Unsurprisingly in a film satirising Hollywood, Maps to the Stars features a conga line of dysfunctional characters. It’s a telling irony that of these, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burns-scarred schizophrenic pyromaniac, is the most balanced (or rather, least unbalanced) – and the only one remotely likeable.
After a long period of enforced institutionalisation, she has come to Hollywood to track down her family, from whom she has been estranged since endangering their lives by starting a house fire while they slept. Puzzlingly, with little money and in desperate need of a job, she spends her first few days being chauffeured around in a limo by an aspiring actor (Robert Pattinson). The only “normal” character in the movie, he is nevertheless afflicted by Hollywood values, declaring that he is considering becoming a Scientologist “for career reasons.”
Agatha’s father, Doctor Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a creepy eyeliner-wearing celebrity shrink who spouts pseudo-poetic pop psychobabble on his TV show and practises dubious massage-based reversion therapy on the rich and famous. The real star of the family, however, is obnoxious Beiber-like 13 year old brat Benjie, who has cracked the bigtime as lead actor in a box office smash. Managed as a precious commodity by his dominating mother, he is just out of rehab, unable to cope with the fame and obscene money that has come with his success.
Then there is messed up neurotic ageing movie star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), haunted and enshadowed by her more famous actress mother, now deceased, whom she claims sexually abused her as a child. She is a patient of Doctor Weiss’s, and when she hires Agatha as a personal assistant it is only a matter of time before he gets to know that his exiled daughter is in town.
The narrative is structured around two quests: Agatha is seeking redemption and reconnection with her family, and Havana is obsessed with being picked for the lead role her mother played in a re-make of her most famous film, and presumably outshining her.
Despite some sharp dialogue and terrific performances from Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, there is a hateful savagery and extreme nastiness to this film that is off-putting, because it is to no good end. Hollywood and its tinsel-souled denizens, with their falsities and insincerity, bitchiness, insecurities, obsession with fame and glamour, youth worship, wallowing in material excess and deficit of meaningful values is easy pickings for satirists – too easy. What is there to say that is not already a given? The purpose of satire is to shine a cynical light into dark corners of society, to expose the pompous, ridiculous and vacuous as such by defamiliarising the familiar. But what if there is no need for such exposure? What if the targets and their flaws are already obvious, writ large on the public consciousness, as in this case?
Director Cronenberg’s solution to this problem is to go over the top, to introduce absurdist elements (such as a silly Oedipal aspect to a central relationship), and to mount a furious slash-and-burn offensive, spiking his satire with cruelty and horror. There is a self-immolation, a most vicious parental beating resulting in possible sterility on the part of the victim, a bloody killing with a movie award as the murder weapon (nice bit o symbolism there), incest, suicide… The result is that the characters – apart from poor Agnes – are rendered so thoroughly repulsive and inhumane that their basic dramatic credibility is undermined. Worse, the much-needed humour of the piece, a saving grace of satire and used with enormous skill and flourish by masters of the form such as Swift and Waugh, is compromised. The sense by the end is of being dumped on. Cathartic for Cronenberg, hopefully, but not such a great trip for the viewer.
If you hate Hollywood with a passion, you’re probably going to love this. Otherwise, likely the opposite. Either way, you won’t be bored!
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