Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "Maps to the Stars"

Director: David Cronenberg
Runtime: 111 minutes

There's quite a bit of talk about fires and burns in Maps to the Stars, yet precious little actual heat. The latest from David Cronenberg sees him taking a knife to the squishy, slimy underbelly of Hollywood, with results that are more likely to induce shrugs than gasps of horror or outrage. Maps is something of a companion piece to Cronenberg's last film, 2012's Cosmopolis, tackling a different sort of elitist American culture, albeit with drastically different tones. The iciness of Cronenberg's approach in Cosmopolis was off-putting at first, yet gradually became an effective choice before making a gripping hard left turn into fire and brimstone condemnation. Unfortunately, the director isn't able to bring even a small fraction of Cosmopolis' concluding fire to Maps. Despite scenes that are, on paper, stomach-churning, Cronenberg's latest is ultimately a lukewarm stab at cutting satire.

Hollywood has always provided multiple angles for satirization, and Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner have at least assembled a good host of targets. There's fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), trying to revitalize her career in the shadow of her dead mother (Sarah Gadon), and her new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to be a burn victim. Then there's Agatha's possible boyfriend Jerome (Robert Pattinson, now at the front of the limo), a limo driver who really wants to be a writer and actor. And then, of course, there's the screwed up child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and his vaguely creepy parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams). All good ingredients to have for an expansive satire of the entertainment industry's vanity, misplaced priorities, and closets stuffed full of skeletons.

Where Maps to the Stars veers of course starts with Wagner's screenplay, which spreads the screen time around so much that all the plot lines feel half baked. The most compelling part of Maps is Havana's story - in no small part thanks to Moore's Cannes-winning performance - yet Wagner spends so much time with the rest of his Hollyweridos that her story comes off as pointless by the time the credits roll. In Havana, Wagner is able to tackle issues such as celebrity status, aging, Hollywood's standards for women, and the trauma of childhood abuse, yet he refuses to fully engage with Havana's mindset. During the first hour or so of the film, Gadon pops up as the ghost of Havana's mother (a famous actress who died young in a fire), presumably to torment her struggling daughter. 

Yet as Wasikowska's own story starts to move independently, Havana's hallucinations cease and her mental strain is washed completely away. Gadon and Moore play off of each other well, and their casting taps into some interesting notions about age and talent, but every scene they have together is exactly the same. Havana asks what Gadon's Clarice wants, and by the end of Maps to the Stars, you'll neither know nor care (Havana seems to forget about her as well).

This is made even more frustrating because of how much fun Moore is having sinking her teeth into a role like this. She alone seems to understand what Cronenberg and Wagner are trying (and failing) to accomplish. She is constantly on edge, even when trying to meditate her way through receiving bad news, which enlivens Cronenberg's otherwise staid atmosphere. The biggest crime of the film is that Moore is a member of an ensemble cast, and not a definitive lead. With her at the center, Maps would have had a infinitely stronger foundation. 

Only Wasikowska comes close to Moore's understanding of the film's aims, even as she's saddled with an underwritten character. Though Moore dominates the scenes with Havana and Agatha, Wasikowska is able to effectively hold her own as a sounding board for Havana's histrionics. And when facing off against other cast members, Wasikowska is really able to shine, giving careful hints about Agatha's damaged psyche and doing her best to fill in the gaps of Wagner's writing. 

The rest of the main cast, however, look as though they've been directed into comatose submission. Bird has the looks to play a royally messed up Bieber-esque child star, but he's never given the room to truly dig into the character's excessive lifestyle and increasingly erratic mindset. Cusack, meanwhile, is unable to lend a spark to what should be a juicy role: a classic puffed-up Hollywood life coach/guru. Yet rather than inflate himself to fit the role, the actor shrinks and goes through the motions. As for Pattinson, he's only got a handful of scenes, and they're all of the sort that really don't require a name actor at all. The exception, and not in a good way, is Olivia Williams, who - perhaps because of the editing - appears to be giving two performances at once. One minute she's a domineering stage mother, and the next she's falling apart and weeping over a past trauma. There's no in between, and the shifts feel completely forced. 

Though Cronenberg knows how to direct freakish madness on screen (Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly, etc etc etc), his forays into psychological dramas over the past decade have largely proven to be stillborn. Cosmopolis and Spider had some effective moments and ideas, yet films like A Dangerous Method were often just sluggish and hollow. Maps to the Stars presents the best opportunity for Cronenberg to use his gifts as a director of nightmares, yet those nightmares never come. Even with the ghosts, different forms of incest, burning bodies, and three dead children, nothing about Maps to the Stars resonates. The visuals are flat, the production design passable, and the music barely notable. The content on page is so scattered that it can't really work without a strong atmosphere to heighten to horror of what it depicts, and Cronenberg and his collaborators never supply it.

One can't blame the director for trying to branch outside of his body horror roots, but you'd think by now he'd have seen that films like Maps to the Stars really don't fit his skill set at all. I have no doubt that he has some genuine contempt for the seedier aspects of Hollywood, but Maps to the Stars ultimately gives the impression that he's just indifferent towards it. Were this his first foray into this sort of satire, it would be easy enough to lay most of the blame at Wagner's feet. Yet even though Wagner's script is heavily flawed, Cronenberg's directorial choices (or lack thereof) are equally lackluster. There is so much bark in what Maps to the Stars wants to say, but when it comes to bite, the film has forgotten to put its dentures in. 

Grade: C

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