Maps to the Stars: Cronenberg’s Dark Hollywood Satire Lags Behind the Zeitgeist

maps_to_the_stars_6_wasikowskaShooting for the first time in L.A.—and telling a quintessential, darkly humorous Hollywood satire–Canadian director David Cronenberg has made in “Maps to the Stars” what is the only provocative and perverse film In Competion at this edition of the Cannes Film Fest.

Likely to divide critics, as several of the auteur’s films (“Crash,” “Cosmopolis”) had done before, Maps to the Stars is sharply uneven, due to the episodic structure of the narrative and, curiously enough, Cronenberg’s struggle to achieve the right tone for his toxic desconstruction of celebrity, dysfunctional family, and contemporary lifestyle in Hollywood.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the hands of Cronenberg, “Maps to the Stars” unfolds as a nightamrish horror picture rather than a witty or biting satire of the film industry and its players, both central and peripheral, most of whom are both immoral and amoral.

maps_to_the_stars_7_mooreIn a future essay, I will compare “Maps to the Stars” to two other classics of Hollywood on Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), films that are far superior to Cronenberg work, perhaps because they showed the two sides of Hollywood, the gifted dreamers as well as the ruthless manipulators, the good and the bad, the truly talented and the peripheral figures.

“Maps to the Stars” is most effective as a horror melodrama of a dysfunctional family.  On the surface, when first met, the Weiss clan has achieved fame, material wealth and brand-name recognition. But as the story unfolds, we begin to observe cracks in this “perfect” facade, deep doubts, bitter feelings, and dark secrets that threaten to uproot their whole lifestyle and tear the family bonds apart–literally.

What propels a series of crises is the return of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the long-lost, locked-away daughter. We learn that on a tragic accident has left her scarred and “safely” kept at bay in a psychiatric asylum.  Recently released, she returns to Los Angeles, where she lies low, taking a job with an aging star, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore).  For a while, she is observing her biological family from a distance, like a wounded animal waiting for the chance to make her move—or is it revenge?

The problem with Bruce Wagner’s scenario, which, tellingly has been in the works for over a decade, is that it lags behind its times. Most of its ideas have already been dealt with before, albeit in less extreme and poisonous manner.  My first reaction to “Maps to the Stars” is that it should have been made at least a decade ago, before the ascent of Reality TV and shows like “Extra” and “Access Hollywood,” not to mention the prominence of TMZ.

maps_to_the_stars_11_pattinsonGive credit where it’s due: Wagner’s screenplay is original only in one sense: It is not based on a novel or any previously published material. But it is not original, or insightful in its basic concepts. By the standanrds of former Cronenberg movies, “Maps to the Stars” is not an ambitious work–it seems pleased to offer a “poisonous letter” to the Dream Factory.

Unlike classic films about Hollywood, “Maps to the Stars” is made from the outside, and as impressive and as precise Cronenberg’s mise en scene is, it doesn’t provide a point of entry for moviegoers into the narrative, because there is not a single positive or sympathetic figure in the entire text.

Add to it the notion that it’s almost impossible to shock viewers anymore-—not even with incestuous relationship and murederous teenagers-—and you have a film that will face an uphill battle in luring spectators into the theaters, except for the small but loyal circle of Cronenberg’s fans.