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Maps to the Stars

D: David Cronenberg / 111m

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Kiara Glasco, Dawn Greenhalgh

Arriving in Los Angeles, Agatha (Wasikowska) is met by limo driver/aspiring actor Jerome (Pattinson).  On the way to where she’s staying she asks him to drive to a spot up in the hills near to the Hollywood sign, though when they get there there isn’t a house where Agatha expects it to be.  Meanwhile, child actor Benjie Weiss (Bird) is in the middle of negotiations to star in the sequel to the movie that has made him a star.  However, a recent bout of substance abuse has the studio insisting on his sobriety.  At the same time, well-known actress Havana Segrand (Moore) is doing all she can to land the part her mother played in a remake of a 60’s classic.  Through a lucky piece of networking, Agatha ends up working for Havana as her P.A.

Agatha has burns from a fire that happened when she was younger and it’s revealed that she’s spent the last seven years in a psychiatric hospital as she caused the fire.  Her reason for coming to L.A. is to make amends to her family, parents Stafford (Cusack) and Christina (Williams), and her brother, who it turns out is Benjie.  When they learn she’s back in town they have different reactions but she sees them each in turn with differing results.  As troubled as Agatha is, she’s unaware of the ghosts Benjie sees, ghosts that are pushing him toward a violent outburst.  And Havana is tormented by visions of her mother (Gadon) before she died, visions that feed into her insecurity about playing her mother’s role.  A relationship blossoms with Jerome but is eventually undermined by Havana, while one of Benjie’s hallucinations causes a tragedy he can’t run away from… except with Agatha.  With violence blighting both their lives, they decide on a solution to their problems that will give them both peace from the demons that haunt them.

Maps to the Stars - scene

The first movie that David Cronenberg has made – if only partially – in the US, Maps to the Stars is a biting satire that explores the various tensions within one of the most dysfunctional families in recent movie history.  The Weisses are so screwed up as a family it’s a wonder any of them can function normally on a day to day basis.  Dad Stafford is a self-help guru cum massage therapist whose sense of his own relevance is underlined by the famous people he’s met, like the Dalai Lama.  He’s distant from his wife and son, and is worried that any adverse publicity will expose the secret he and Christina have shared for years.  For her part, Christina acts as a kind of manager for her son’s career, advising him and attending meetings with the studio.  She gets little recognition for her efforts from him, and she too is afraid their secret will be revealed. Both characters are unhappy and edgy in their own skins, and there is a distance between them that has become enforced through necessity, but their dependence on each other is the only way they can express their love for each other.

Benjie is thirteen and the kind of spoilt-minded child actor who thinks it’s okay to disrespect people and be abusive and mean-minded.  There’s a certain amount of insecurity about him, but it’s smothered by his “fuck you” attitude, and his need to be in control of his own life, independent of his parents.  By contrast, Agatha is the child who wants to make amends, who wants to see her family reunited, but doesn’t realise – or expect – that her optimism is misguided.  Her troubled history (controlled by several different medications) is in danger of defining her as an individual, and her job with Havana, and her romance with Jerome, help boost her confidence in dealing with Benjie and her parents.  When they both go wrong, she discards her meds, and it’s only when she does that she’s truly able to deal with things, even if the way in which she does is far from appropriate.  Self-confidence aside, it’s her schizophrenia that keeps her strong.

All four actors – Cusack, Williams, Bird and Wasikowska – prove excellent choices for their roles, and each one holds the viewer’s attention with ease in each of their scenes; when some of them are together, it’s like an embarrassment of riches, and it’s good to see Cusack back on form after the likes of Drive Hard and The Prince (both 2014).  But this is Moore’s movie all the way, her portrayal of an actress on the verge of becoming irrelevant both tragic and horrifying in its naked neediness and self-serving hypocrisy.  Moore’s no stranger to tortured female characters (whether self-inflicted or not), and here she adds yet another to the list, making Havana pitiable, self-destructive and venal in equal measure.  It’s a bravura performance, with Moore displaying Havana’s emotional vulnerability and lack of empathy, particularly in the horrifying scene where she celebrates getting her mother’s role through tragic circumstances.  She’s hypnotic to watch, and by far the best part of seeing the movie.

Good as the performances are though (and they are very good), there isn’t any easy way to connect with the characters.  Agatha has most of the viewer’s sympathy, but that slowly changes as the movie progresses.  Benjie is virtually irredeemable, while Stafford and Christina are too wrapped up in themselves to care about anyone else.  This is also a movie made with a degree of distance between the characters and the audience, and this appears to be down to Cronenberg’s approach to both them and Bruce Wagner’s screenplay.  His direction is as inventive as ever, and he deposits the Weisses and Havana in various large, open spaces to highlight their isolation (particularly their own homes).  As a movie that shines a light on how dysfunction and self-destruction can both encourage and propel certain people toward terrible actions, it’s a triumph.  But as a movie that identifies root causes and solid motivations for those actions it’s not so successful, leaving the viewer to scratch their head at how the characters can be so self-destructive, and with no attempts to seek help (even from Stafford).

However, there is a degree of dark humour here that some audiences will recognise, as well as moments of soap opera absurdity that threaten to undermine the overall cleverness of the script.  These are also predictable moments, and while some are necessary for certain storylines to move forward, it’s a shame that they’ve been included, as they actually cause the movie’s flow to stutter when they occur.  Still, there’s more here that’s good than bad, and it’s compelling on several levels.

Rating: 8/10 – another winner from Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars has a few, minor faults, and will certainly divide audiences, but fans will lap it up, while newcomers to Cronenberg’s oeuvre may be non-plussed by the observational approach; with a raft of intriguing, well-constructed performances, the movie offers far more than is obvious at first glance.

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