Much like its subject, Maps to the Stars is confusingly contradictory. As Cronenberg’s first project to be filmed in the U.S., it is an invasively close-to-home criticism of Hollywood that, while deeply satirical, is disturbingly real. The film’s plot echoes Sunset Boulevard as an ageing actress Havana (Moore) tries to obtain the role of her lifetime, a role that made her now deceased mother famous in the 1960s. Her new personal assistant Agatha (Wasikowska) connects us to our second demonstration of Hollywood vanity in the form of the prototypical L.A family: a life coach father whose wife is their child star son’s manager. And so begins the incestuous web of egotism, dysfunction and deceit.
Maps to the Stars mocks the Hollywood lifestyle and the people whom perpetuate it by actualising their egotism into life-threatening drama. The characters are both the creators and sufferers of their own behaviour and therefore there is a sense of soap opera and emotional emptiness in the action that can cause you to question if your lack of sympathy for them is hindering your engagement with the film.
Interestingly though, it is the central performances that undeniably carry the film. Moore is phenomenal as the nauseatingly vain and obnoxiously self-pitying, faded actress. Think Norma Desmond with less mad fantasy and more grotesque realism. It is no surprise she walked away from Cannes with its Best Actress award, then again, Moore has always been a guaranteed great performance. Wasikowska’s portrayal of the sinister Agatha is also surprisingly captivating. Dressed in her long, black rubber gloves (she’s a burn victim), grey floaty dresses and no make up walks along the line between childlike innocence and calculating psychopathy.
John Cusack’s unfeeling, ambitious life coach is an effectively unlikeable patriarch and delivers his lines in a cold, robotic parody of the phony gurus he is satirizing. His insipid wife (Olivia Williams with a dubious American accent) seems to be one of the most contradictory characters due to her abrupt transition from the icy Mom-ager to an emotional wreck, a change that is as unexplained as it is excessive to the point of ironic. Evan Bird plays the just out of rehab 13-year-old child star, Benjie who appears to be an (even more) jaded Bieber. Finally Robert Pattinson drives a limo around, occasionally dropping in that he is an out of work actor and currently writing a script. His character is an obvious allusion to Cronenberg’s previous film Cosmopolis in which Pattinson played a billionaire conducting business out of the back seat of a limo, a self-mocking irony perhaps.
The insularity of Hollywood life is reflected in the film’s claustrophobic restriction to a few characters and indoor sets. Soulless, modernist mansions are the backdrop to a lot of the drama which itself mostly consists of the characters’ narcissistic conversations. The format initially conjures feelings of modern reality shows, housebound single-camera dramas in which people become famous because they think they already are. However, situated within this realist world are ghosts (both literal and symbolic) that haunt our characters in dreamlike sequences as their externalized psyches. It is safe to say, subtlety is truly abandoned and in its place Cronenberg has implemented darkly comic irony, so dark that it is possible to miss.
Maps to the Stars contains some tour-de-force performances and is an enjoyably vulgar depiction of the broken dream factory that is Hollywood. However, it falls short. A sort of melodrama leaving you numb, the film is easier to enjoy in retrospect than during. It lacks the nostalgic emotional force of Sunset Boulevard as well as the gritty intelligence of The Player but instead manages to produce a gruelling and uncompromising satire that is definitely worth the watch.