Ew, Gross: A Review of David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’

Maps to the Stars

A couple years ago, a movie called The Paperboy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It was director Lee Daniels’s follow-up to his Award-winning Preciousbut unlike that movie, The Paperboy was an outlet for the gross impulses and aesthetics that seem to make up Daniels’s id. The movie was critically panned, and I can’t really argue with that response. The Paperboy is, indeed, a horrible mess of a movie. However, couched in that sweaty Southern tale, is a magnificent performance by Nicole Kidman. At one point in the movie, Kidman famously pees on Zac Efron’s leg, at another, she experiences a telepathic orgasm curtesy of John Cusack. Kidman’s is a performance with no boundaries. She is free to act however she wants, and she feels more alive than she had in years.

That introduction might seem irrelevant, but there are a number of similarities between The Paperboy and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Both of them premiered to unenthusiastic reactions at Cannes, and both of them got even worse reviews when they were released stateside. The similarity I want to focus on, however, is the fact that Maps to the Stars does for Julianne Moore what The Paperboy did for Nicole Kidman. Moore’s career hasn’t been in quite the same rut that Kidman’s was before she did The Paperboy, but we still have to thank Maps to the Stars for giving us the unrestrained Julianne Moore performance that so many of her fans were waiting for.

Moore plays Havana Segrand, a middle-aged Hollywood actress who is desperately trying to get the lead role in the remake of the movie that made her diseased mother famous. As you might expect, Havana is a supremely shallow and self-focused person. I’m not going to lie, she is not a very original character. She is pretty much what you picture when you hear someone is writing a satire about an aging Hollywood actress. She is a vain platinum blonde with a Californian accent. However, you get Julianne Moore to play this role, and you get yourself a treat. Moore usually excels at providing her characters with a certain level of tragic pathos (think of her Amber Waves in Boogie Nights), so it’s actually quite a bit of fun to see her be able to just tear into the ridiculous inner life of as fucked up a person as Havana Segrand.

It’s also quite refreshing to see Moore be so casually gross throughout the movie. To see an actress who is known for her elegance and grace have her lips puffed up, dance around in a see-through dress, or casually wipe her inner thighs after having sex in a limo. I could go on and on until I’m transcribing in detail a scene in which Moore talks to Mia Wasikowska while sitting on the toilet, but I won’t. Because very much like Kidman in The Paperboy, Julianne Moore is the best part of the movie, but Maps to the Stars is not really her story.

Maps to the Stars is really about the meeting of two other characters: Benji Weiss (Evan Bird), an obnoxious child-star trying to revamp his career after coming out of rehab, and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a disfigured burn victim who travels to Los Angeles with a mysterious agenda of her own. Also figuring into the story are Robert Pattinson as a limo driver, Olivia Williams as Benji’s mother, and John Cusack as his father, who is also some sort of holistic therapist for the Julianne Moore character. The movie is set in Hollywood, so everyone has their own set of selfish goals. Their paths meet with deadly consequences.

The movie is directed by David Cornenberg, and written by Bruce Wagner, who is apparently known for having a supremely negative view of Hollywood. After watching Maps to the Stars I have no doubt that Mr. Wagner hates Los Angeles’s movie culture, but I don’t know if he’s telling me anything of substance, or anything that I haven’t heard before. For being a gross, angry satire about Hollywood, Maps to the Stars feels familiar, and often rote. It suffers, like many movie in its genre do, of being unable to find a dark side of Hollywood that we haven’t seen before. Like film critic Peter Labuza wisely said, it seems like “every Hollywood satire made since [Robert Altman’s] The Playerhas more or less been been a riff on The Player“.

What does Maps to the Stars tell us about Hollywood? That people are self-absorbed. As a matter of fact, that is pretty much the one thing that Wagner seems to have kept in mind when developing his characters’ personalities. That they love themselves, and that they’re bad people who are sometimes tormented by how horrible they’ve been. They live in pristine mansions, but do the grossest things. The message is repetitive, immature, and not very complex.

Still, movies with far bigger handicaps have managed to be enjoyable. The problem with Maps to the Stars, weirdly enough, might be David Cronenberg. This might sound weird, but I think he was not the right director for this material. He might not be as good a director as Cronenberg, but I think someone like Lee Daniels is the kind of pervert that this movie needed. That is not meant as an insult to Mr. Daniels. I’m just saying that I get the sense that Cronenberg thinks the people in this movie are gross and disturbed, while Daniels, being as he is fascinated with fluids (sweat, oil, pee), seems able to find a certain sex appeal in even the most disgusting things.

Maps to the Stars is predictable satire, and Cronenberg’s clinical eye prevents it from truly transcending into glorious camp territory, but it also isn’t a boring movie. There is always a certain level of fun to be had when looking at despicable people interact with each other. And no one in this movie is as despicable, or as brilliant as Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand.

Grade: 6 out of 10

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