“Map to the Stars” follows a multitude of washups and wannabes as they desperately claw their way up the social ladder of celebrity-saturated Hollywood Hills.
The director, David Cronenberg, is better known for cult-classic B horror films such as “Videodrone,” “Existenz” and an exceptional remake of “The Fly,” each of which featured a repulsive obsession with mankind’s inherent dependence on our own weak, vulnerable flesh.
Recently he seems to have exchanged his morbid interest in bodily horror for a sort of ‘personality horror.’ After the uniquely human crime studies of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” I had some tentative hope for his latest film, despite his lack of experience in the genre. Oh well.
The first two thirds of the film hold up well enough, presenting us with a cast of narcissists from whose self-destruction we can derive some guilty pleasure. The film centers around the Weiss family.
The father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) plays therapist to Los Angeles’ more unstable personalities, while his son Benjie (Evan Bird) tries to recover his career after a bout of rehab, even if it means reprising his role in the comedy series “Bad Babysitter.”
Meanwhile Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) tries to face her childhood trauma by reprising her mother’s role in an arthouse remake of one of her previous films, but instead finds herself haunted by her mother’s visage.
The casting here is a mixed bag. Child actors are always a little clumsier than their more seasoned coworkers, but Bird has no excuse for the utter lifelessness with which he portrays his supposedly emotionally scarred character. Moore and Cusack provide plenty of talent but are ultimately unable to bail the sinking ship that is the final act of the film.
Maybe the one definite saving grace of the film is found in the eccentric character of Agatha, a starry-eyed newcomer to the Hollywood scene. Had the movie focused solely on the conflicts found in her relationship with her driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) and her role as ‘chore-whore’ to Havana Segrand, it might have made for a potent romance that simultaneously exposed the darker side of celebrities.
Instead, whatever promise the film held is lost in the latter half. Some characters act inconsistently, while their arcs are negated entirely. Others disappear from the film without any conclusion.
The film seems to beg for its audience’s investment or at-least undivided attention with unjustified fits of ‘action.’ One particular scene, featuring a minor with an ‘unloaded’ gun, while intending to instill a sense of suspense in its viewers, instead had the theater laughing. That we were sad when an animal was shot rather than any of the adolescents on screen is a testament to the characters’ total lack of redeeming qualities.
Another scene has a rather forgettable character engulfed in fiery CGI, the effects befitting a much lower budgeted film. When the credits did roll, it was after a purely inconclusive climax, like the plot had given up rather than choose a viable direction. The absolute incoherence of the final few scenes has since had me questioning whether the events depicted had even really happened.
I don’t regret watching “Maps to the Stars.” Relative to whatever other mindless explosive blockbuster is going to hit theaters soon, watching actors and actresses squirm under a microscope of cynicism proves a rewarding experience, though guiltily so.
Like most of Cronenberg’s films, it often relies a bit too much on shock value, with characters incessantly uttering vulgarities and exposing themselves to the camera. If this truly is David Cronenberg’s last film, then at least we can observe it in all its unrelenting oddness, a reflection of the man’s flawed, unique biography.