By Shane M. Dallmann
MAPS TO THE STARS is the first David Cronenberg film I missed on the big screen since I saw VIDEODROME in 1983. Hell, I’m one of the twelve who actually saw COSMOPOLIS in a hardtop, okay? So let me tell you what happened. I had ONE day off last week and I wanted to see the new Cronenberg movie with my wife. But I thought we had time for a quick burger-and-beer ahead of time. We didn’t. By the time we were served, we were already ten minutes late for the movie. But we got to meet Prince the Pibble near out outdoor table, and he loved us. And we got to take a walk to the candy store. And the movie was gone the very next day (just like COSMOPOLIS). But it was playing simultaneously on demand. I ended up watching it by myself. And it’s just as well… my wife would probably have HATED it.
Cronenberg ended his run of genuinely fantastic body-horror stories with THE FLY, but his work continued to enthrall me even as he moved away from the genre. I was intrigued by his insistence on filming “unfilmable” novels such as NAKED LUNCH and CRASH, and when he served up A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES in succession, I was finally convinced that eventually one of “our guys” was going to win Best Director. But… A DANGEROUS METHOD was one of the few that left me with no particular urge to want to see it again. On the other hand, COSMOPOLIS fit in quite nicely (even if nobody else saw it), and I can see MAPS TO THE STARS (Cronenberg’s very first film shot at least partially in the U.S.) taking place simultaneously with both old-school and new-age Cronenberg–in fact, it has a piece of pretty much every movie he’s made to date. But did I LIKE it? I’m still not sure.
About all I can do here is introduce you to the characters and the essential situations. Top-billed Julianne Moore is Havana, a fading Hollywood star who’s desperate to take the lead role in a proposed remake of a renowned art film–starring her own mother. She’s got plenty of unresolved issues with her mother (who died in a fire) and her mother’s ghost is showing up at the most inopportune moments for Havana’s sanity. Havana is receiving therapy (including BDSM, so there’s your DANGEROUS METHOD link) from wildly successful author/motivational speaker John Cusack. Cusack and Olivia Williams are the parents of the insufferable, drug-addled, rehab-struggling teen star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Benjie is seeing ghosts, too–only these are children’s ghosts, some of whom he recognizes and some of whom he couldn’t possibly have known. Oh, and Benjie has a sister, but nobody’s supposed to know about Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). But the burn-scarred Agatha has freed herself from her own therapy and has now arrived in Hollywood… and since she knows Carrie Fisher (played by herself), she gets a job as Havana’s personal assistant. Oh, and her boyfriend is a chauffeur played by Robert Pattinson (who HAD a chauffeur in COSMOPOLIS).
Agatha’s going to introduce herself into certain lives and RE-introduce herself to her family. And awful, awful, awful things are going to happen.
Who on earth managed to get this film listed as a “comedy” in our local listings? MAPS TO THE STARS is a lot of things, but “comedy” certainly isn’t one of them. And it’s certainly not a poorly-made or poorly-acted film… far from it. The cast is exemplary: Moore continues to shine as a truly fearless actress–and Wasikowska? My goodness… I suggested that I found STOKER a tad over-directed, but she was fantastic in that, and under Cronenberg’s eye she is simply phenomenal. And this is the very first time I’ve praised a Cronenberg film on the merits of its lead female performances (I’ll spare you memories of Kiera Knightley in METHOD), so I can’t forget to mention that, although the guys are just as impressive (particularly Bird–you’ll detest his character even as you take your hat off to the actor himself).
The material is frank and confrontational throughout–including plenty of scatological conversation and a sex scene featuring an extended shot that I never, ever thought I’d see the likes of in anything with less than an NC-17 rating (I’m still baffled as to how this qualified for an R). The desperate sex (including a scene in a limo) invokes CRASH, there’s the gunplay of NAKED LUNCH… well, the list goes on, but the bottom line is that this is Cronenberg’s most painful family-trauma film since THE BROOD.
My (potential) problem with MAPS TO THE STARS isn’t the lack of concrete explanations for everything that happens on screen (I could scarcely be a Cronenberg fan if I had that problem). To a degree, it certainly has something to do with where Bruce Wagner’s screenplay will and won’t go in order to disturb the viewer. I’m singling out a scene filled with slowly-building and palpable dread that drops the ball the second the dog shows up. “Oh, well, now I KNOW what’s going to happen next.” It does. And it DOES set up an even more horrific bit of action later… but we’re let off the hook after the fact with “He’ll be okay.” Enough said.
But what I’m still asking myself is exactly why this particular story needed to be told. There’s got to be more to it than “People suffer whether or not they deserve to,” right?
Look, the jury’s still out. Cronenberg movies are rarely “one and done.” If you see MAPS TO THE STARS, you’ll witness provocative filmmaking and fine acting. But will you be glad that you did? Let me know.