To say that David Cronenberg pulls no punches over the course of his new film Maps to the Stars would probably be the nicest way to put things. The Canadian firebrand of a director who rose to prominence as the fore of body horror films like Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly in the 1980’s may have cooled down that aspect of his career in his recent work, but his penchant for provocation has remained even as his content has shifted. Films like Eastern Promises and A History of Violence prove that his predilections have remained even as his exploding heads quotient has decreased, and with his new project, his sights are set solely on Hollywood.
An intricate, interlocking story, Maps to the Stars centers itself around the Weiss family; patriarch Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a psychologist to the stars, while wife Christina (Olivia Williams) is an intense stage mom to their child star trainwreck of a son Benjie (Evan Bird). Stafford’s sole on-screen client is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading movie star and daughter to a more famous actress who tragically drowned at a young age. Segrand is in the market for a personal assistant to help her get back in the acting game, and hires Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young ingenue just off the bus with unsightly burns on her face and body. Agatha is embroiled in a torrid affair with a local limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and has surprising connections to the Weiss family, and her arrival in LA is a combustible element poised to set the worlds of Havana and the Weisses alight.
Cronenberg, working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, clearly seems to not be the biggest fan of the more vapid corners of Hollywood’s culture of excess. His approach is not entirely new; there is clear DNA of both Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive to be found in the foundations of Maps to the Stars. David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece is its closest cousin, complete with a twisted, thorny narrative involving a waif-like naive girl (trading Naomi Watts for Mia Wasikowska) finding her way in a Hollywood full of broken people, hallucinations and haunted dreams. The script is not as daring as Lynch's, because of course it is not, but Cronenberg and Wagner do manage to carve out their own niche. The dead play a pointed role in Maps to the Stars, reminding Havana and Benjie of what they have done and where they came from, creating an environment where reality and illusion mingle freely. It is a tricky tightrope to walk, vulnerable to devolve into a narrative and tonal mess. And, to be honest, much of the film is a mess, though it is clear that, from the perspective of the director and screenwriter, intentional.
Of course, such heavy and often absurd satire like this can only hope to overcome itself with the aid of a committed and unified cast, and Cronenberg has done well with the crew he has assembled. Moore is the rock at the center, a modern day Norma Desmond, her decaying mansion traded for a posh but ultimately empty piece of modern architecture. It is an ugly performance of an ugly character, but this is exactly what Cronenberg needs in this case. Moore is a consummate professional, more than capable of creating the sort of unglamorous semi-starlet the part requires. Her fellow cast members are equal to the task, all of them fearless in how they commit themselves to the melodrama even as the film spins its way further and further afield of anything remotely resembling life as it is known.
More often than not, Maps to the Stars struggles to keep itself together. It strives for a through-line via recurring fire and water imagery, an equal nod to baptism and death. Even this, though, is inconsistent in its execution. Cronenberg’s focus seems overtrained on skewering Hollywood culture, and focusing on a coherent story gets second billing. Additionally, there is some downright rancid CGI at times, so bad that it must be intentional, though to what end is not particularly clear. There is payoff to the vigor with which Cronenberg attacks Hollywood, from its tendency to abandon actresses as they age in favor of youth to the likelihood that even the limo driver is an actor and screenwriter, and everyone seems to enjoy having sex with everyone else a little bit too much. The cast makes this aspect of Maps to the Stars sing, even if its other particulars falter in relation. There are moments of almost divine suffering that hearken back to Cronenberg at the peak of his powers, and his dismantling of the Hollywood machine is first-rate. It is a shame he could not quite gather up all of the film’s disparate parts into a cohesive whole. At the very least, Maps to the Stars is the most intriguing of messes, provocative and alluring, even if it does not quite manage to make it all work consistently.