Maps to the Stars *** (out of five)
David Cronenberg’s new film starts with incredible promise. Indeed, for the first few minutes I was approaching ecstasy, thinking that I was in for a Hollywood satire to (finally!) rival The Player. Dead-on (and dead-pan) gags involving child stars, tenuous Hollywood “connections” and the like had me (and the critics around me) laughing out loud. Had Cronenberg made a flat-out comedy?
He hadn’t, and Maps to the Stars, while certainly maintaining a satirical edge throughout, drifts into more recognisable Cronenberg territory, which will be no bad thing for Cronenberg aficionados. However, unusually for him, Cronenberg didn’t write this one – it’s based on a novel by Bruce Wagner, who also wrote the screenplay. Wagner specialises in tawdry Hollywood take-downs, and Maps to the Stars is very representative of his work. It’s a good match for Cronenberg, but there’s no room in the story for anyone grafting machinery into their vital organs, so don’t go waiting for Cronenberg “body horror” or you’ll be very disappointed.
Maps tells the story of a child star, Benjie (Evan Bird, a creepy young actor who looks like his name) who is attempting to get back into his own franchise, Bad Babysitter, after a stint in “home rehab”. Meanwhile, in another part Hollywood, an ageing actress, the excellently named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance) is trying desperately to win the role her famous dead mother played in a remake of one of her most popular films. Their paths cross for a number of reasons, but the theme here is buried family secrets emerging, like ghosts, from the past.
Technically very simple – Cronenberg uses an almost entirely still camera and the simplest of framing and cutting, along with a minimalist sound design – Maps lacks the style and flair we associate with the master Canadian auteur. But the money here is in the performances. Moore gives a very strong performance indeed (though whether she deserved to win at Cannes over Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night is disputed by me at least) and there are solid turns from Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams and the genuinely Cronenbergian Bird. In a sly joke, Robert Pattinson, who spent most of Cosmopolis in the back of a limo, plays a limo driver.
It’s fun and bizarre and laugh-out loud funny at times, and while it’s certainly far from mind-blowing (and Cronenberg has been mind-blowing many times: The Fly, Eastern Promises, Crash, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, Scanners…) it’s always fun to watch this resolutely original director at work. He’s never made a movie in Hollywood, and he shot this Hollywood tale, like almost all his films, in Toronto. Which just makes perfect Cronenbergian sense.