Hollywood is all about connections, so they say. The new film Maps to the Stars illustrates that old mantra in bold extremes, not-so-subtly suggesting that the film industry is tightly woven by a network of perverse sexual desire, unnatural blood relations, and plain old nepotism. Yet if legendary director David Cronenberg’s intention was to create a dark satire of show business, the dark ultimately and unfortunately overpowers the satire. Off the bat, this is a film more preoccupied with delivering cheap ‘shock’ moments, rather than positing any actual insight into the world of the rich and famous (past the idea that they’re all messed up). Though Cronenberg obviously knows how to shoot a film, his latest is bogged down by irredeemably clumsy writing, uneven acting and an aimless narrative in which a lot of crazy stuff happens, but nothing really comes of it.
This movie is like Birdman‘s showbiz takedown was thrown in a blender with the psycho-thriller madness of Black Swan, and then written by Jaden Smith. It forces its obvious observations and artificial revelations down the audiences throats, under the assumption that it’s an infinitely wise and original story. In reality, it’s simply a more provocative version of a jumble of subjects that have been done to death. In the film’s defense, I was never bored watching it; things do happen that you couldn’t possibly expect. But all of the crazy twists and turns amount to several character studies of people who don’t have enough depth to them to warrant being studied. That isn’t always a bad thing — Sofia Coppola’s characters in The Bling Ring were shallow and void of personality, but that was by design. This movie thinks it has characters with a lot going on inside, but really they can be boiled down to ‘mommy issues’, ‘mental breakdown’ and ‘fame went to their head’. Turn on reality TV and you’ll get a much less pretentious look at these same types of characters.
If anyone can make the movie’s tonally-awkward characters work it’s Julianne Moore, who shines as fading star Havana Segrand, a modern update of Sunset Boulevard‘s washed-up actress Norma Desmond. She plays the role with a Valley Girl demeanor, cartoonish egotism, and of course palpable mommy issues. Her character makes sense because that common archetype is, in real life, already so vapid, hyperbolic and removed from reality. Also impressive is Mia Wasikowska, who arrives in LA and becomes Segrand’s personal assistant. As usual, Wasikowska is perfectly unreadable, never giving away just how innocent or not-innocent she is.
On the other side of the coin, John Cusack struggles to match the script’s odd balance between over-the-top and believable as Stafford Weiss, some sort of new age Hollywood therapist/masseuse. His son, teen star Benjie, is a pivotal character played by Evan Bird, who starts strong but can’t nail the landing when the film pushes his character past a certain point. His delivery is often incredibly amateurish up against the movie’s established stars and especially coming from a director with such a long career and impressive reputation. Ultimately, it may be more the fault of a script that doesn’t always understand how teenagers would react. This could have been the ultimate look at the psychology of teen celebrity, a very interesting phenomena that isn’t slowing down in the age of Justin Bieber, Amanda Bynes, and the Disney star assembly line.
Instead, characters like Benjie illustrate the script’s misguided focus on supernatural hijinks, played-out psychotic episodes and redundant, repetitive cases of incest and untimely death. Worse still, the visuals in the film, even when it dives into hallucination territory, are uninteresting when the script could have easily employed some surreal, distinctly Cronenberg flair. It’s wasted opportunities upon wasted opportunities in a movie that had many chances to be something special and takes very, very few of them.
Score: 2 out of 5