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Non-Review Review: Maps to the Stars

It is a cliché to suggest that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood.

Sure, quite often these are celebratory meditations on how great Tinseltown is – Argo was the story of how Hollywood saved the lives of Americans caught up in the Iranian Revolution; Hitchcock celebrated the making of Psycho. Sometimes these are more cynical and jaded explorations of how Hollywood works, seeking to expose the community’s seedy underbelly to the world – Robert Altman’s The Player remains the definitive example, but films like What Just Happened probably count as well.

These stock Hollywood-story-about-Hollywood are the weakest aspects of Maps to the Stars. The movie often feels like it’s trying too hard to add a surface gloss of what people expect from a film about Hollywood, on top of a much more interesting and compelling tale of dysfunction and decay. Maps to the Stars is held together by a rake of terrific performances and a wonderfully creepy central metaphor, but it feels let down by the more superficial elements of the script.

We're all in the gutter...

We’re all in the gutter…

There are a lot of elements that audiences expect in a film about Hollywood; the ingredients that feel like they are necessary for a full and well-rounded Hollywood story. Audiences expect cameos and name-drops and references to popular trends and popular movies. After all, a biting satire has to be willing to name and shame. Otherwise, it might seem like the film was pulling its punches – that it was being a tad hypocritical. If a film about Hollywood is afraid to actually be about Hollywood, it might seem toothless.

So, inevitably, you end up with actors who are willing to spoof themselves, as if to demonstrate that they can see the darkly funny side of their world. So you end up with celebrities playing twisted versions of themselves acknowledging the more twisted and corrupt side of the movie-making machine. This is the End piled a bunch of celebrities playing themselves into a house party at the end of the world. Robert Altman’s The Player was practically bursting at the seams with celebrities willing to mock themselves.

Weiss guys...

Weiss guys…

Maps to the Stars seems to go through the motions on these elements. Carrie Fisher is the most high-profile celebrity appearing as herself, although the script includes countless first-name references and name-dropping in order to assure viewers that this is a version of Hollywood that is not entirely fictitious. “J.J.” is having a party. “Drew” proved that the public loves stories about dysfunctional young performers who make good. “Anne Hathaway” is apparently playing a role in a fictional film here.

However, all this referencing and name-dropping doesn’t seem as self-aware and wry as it should. It feels like the movie trying to assure the audience that this isn’t just another fictionalised Hollywood. The problem is that, for all intents and purposes, it is. Outside of Carrie Fisher, the cast of characters in Maps to the Stars are all fictional creations unique to the film. Maps to the Stars exists in its own hyper-real alternate Hollywood, perhaps one just a little to the left of Mulholland Drive.

Facing each other...

Facing each other…

Julianne Moore is an ageing starlet working through her own insecurities and past traumas, competing with other fictional actresses for choice roles. Evan Bird plays a child star who finds himself competing for screentime against another fictional child actor. There is a very obvious reason why the script needs all these players to be original creations rather than existing personalities, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is the way that the script feels obliged to offer these tiny links to Tinseltown as it actually exists.

Maps to the Stars is at its best when it lets go of these trappings of real Hollywood, when it focus on the lives and circumstances of these fictional characters operating within this celebrity world. The personal drama playing out in the midst of the Weiss family makes for compelling viewing – distinctly uncomfortable and impossible to look away from. Maps to the Stars commits all-in to the family’s dysfunctional dynamic, and it plays very well.

Drink it in...

Drink it in…

The movie captures the mood and feel of Hollywood dysfunction best in broad terms. There is the repetition of it all; the way that characters tend to recycle and repeat statements offered by others as their own ideas. There is the insistence that everybody in Hollywood is secretly a writer, whether writing scripts in their spare time or simply re-writing their own history by clumsily inserting their own narrative of past events into conversation.

“We grew close” is not something that ever needs to be said, unless somebody is trying desperately to assert it. There is a sense that everybody is writing and managing – characters are quick to assure each other that they really knew what was going on all along, and to repeat blatant lies as if hoping that repetition might make them true. Vapid clichés are offered as life-changing mantras, with self-empowerment consisting of nothing more than repeating what somebody else said earlier.

What is it about child actors?

What is it about child actors?

Characters script their interactions with one another – often dictating the response that they expect from the other person. Conversation with another individual is an illusion; other people exist solely as sounding boards unto which a person can project their own issues, or tools that can be exploited and manipulated. Prostitution is the norm, even if it is not described explicitly as such. Ultimately, love is nothing more than leverage; “research” that might somehow feed into a creative impulse and lead to success.

Maps to the Stars doesn’t need Carrie Fisher or reference to The Voice or Two and a Half Men. That approach to Hollywood satire can work, but Maps to the Stars lacks the will to commit to it. As a result, these little nods and winks are ultimately distracting. More effective are the little ways that the film captures the spirit and atmosphere of Hollywood. Although the movie might labour its central theme too hard, it makes for a delightfully brutal take on Hollywood.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

It helps that the casting is phenomenal. Mia Wasikowska demonstrates that she is one of the most talented actors of her generation, providing a sturdy centre to the narrative while never upstaging those around her. Playing Agatha, a character who – as wryly noted by the wonderful and insightful Philip Bagnall after the screening – literally burned by her Hollywood experience, Wasikowska anchors the film while allowing the rest of the cast freedom to move around her. It’s an understated performance, but a fantastic one.

Still, Maps to the Stars largely belongs to Julianne Moore, who gives a powerful and raw performance as an actress confronted with her own anxieties and issues. Havana Segrand is a character who exists rather isolated from the rest of the major players in the cast. While Evan Bird, John Cusack and Olivia Williams are all tied into their own subplot together and Robert Pattinson appears in a role supporting Wasikoska, Moore is given her own little world within Maps to the Stars, operating tangentially to the bulk of the cast.

We all have our Weisses...

We all have our Weisses…

It is a role that could very easily become troublesome for the film, making Maps to the Stars seem bloated or over-stuffed. Moore is often completely divorced from the main plot featuring Agatha, with only a few fleeting interactions with the movie’s other performers. However, Moore offers an utterly compelling and powerhouse performance that keeps her scenes from feeling like indulgences. Moore is one of the strongest actresses working today, and she offers a truly searing portrayal of desperation.

While Segrand could easily seem like a stock Hollywood story cliché, Moore fashions a complex and multi-faceted identity for the character. As portrayed by Moore, Segrand’s character arc is harrowing and heart-breaking. Segrand might just be the most sympathetic monster that Cronenberg has created in quite some time; a person who has all the ingredients to make a whole person, but is somehow missing some undefined and immeasurable part of herself.

Where's her head at?

Where’s her head at?

The rest of the cast does good work as well. John Cusack is suitably convincing as a cynical self-help guru who masks his own monstrousness behind zen clichés and a soothing monotone. Cusack plays a particularly convincing psychopath – a high-functioning individual who hides his dark side beneath the most banal exterior imaginable. Cusack is ably supported by Olivia Williams was a helicopter mother trying desperately to stage-manage her son, the successful child star.

Maps to the Stars is not subtle. It has a lot of angry things to say about Hollywood, and it will say them quite loudly. However, its willingness to dabble in that ugliness and unpleasantness gives it a strange energy. Maps to the Stars might be messy, but it is also ambitious. It might be convoluted and contrived in places, but it is also confrontational and compelling. As with Moore’s powerhouse performance, there is an urgency and a rawness that carries the film.

Maps to the Stars is a film that works a lot better than it should, even if it never seems as sure of itself as it should be. Featuring a fantastic cast and a delightfully cynical view of Hollywood, along with a powerful and unnerving central metaphor, Maps to the Stars is an uncomfortable piece of cinema that is all the more effective for its excess.

4 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed reading your insightful analysis. I think Cronenberg and team have done a wonderful job putting all the pieces together.

    Here’s the link to my review of Maps to the Stars (would love to have your thoughts):

    http://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/2014/10/maps-to-stars-2014-canadian-filmmaker.html

  2. Excellent review, watching movie & reading review at same time. BB IN MI

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