Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.
The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.
It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.
Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.
While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.