Which Way to the Exit?, by Matt Warren
Maps to the Stars is the shittiest movie of David Cronenberg’s career. I never saw that one about a hairlip Ralph Fiennes bumping into catacomb walls or that one where Carl Jung ejaculates into Kiera Knightley’s bulldog underbite, but there’s no way either of them are worse than this. Maps is so bad, it literally gave me eye cancer. Currently, I’m in Rochester, MN receiving experimental corneal treatment at the Mayo Clinic. The prognosis is encouraging, but if surviving this terrible affliction means being forced to live another second in a world where irrelevant Canadian auteurs are free to impotently lift their leg and issue a hot stream of poutine-tinged urine on the Hollywood Sign while muttering in deranged tongues about the blandly obvious and thematically tired grotesquerie of the Entertainment Industry, then I’m no rush to live. What an unholy pit of vipers this terrible world is. I await the cleansing fire.
Maps to the Stars is (somehow) Cronenberg’s first film shot entirely in the United States. For this auspicious milestone, the kinky Canuck cooked up a smug, witless, and incompetently assembled satire of movie star shallowness and Hollywood bad behavior. You may ask yourself: but in a world where Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Mulholland Drive, and even motherfucking Entourage already exist, why even bother? It’s my opinion that aside from the exceptions listed above—plus a few others—showbiz takedowns are the last refuge of the terminally uninspired; a venue for bitter assholes to grind axes and make excuses for their capsized careers. It’s gross. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I can feel your hunger for a basic plot rundown reverberating backwards in time, up through the subtly humming keys of my very expensive laptop. Well, here it is…
Taking its cues from the many LA tapestry films before it, Maps focuses on a core ensemble of broken souls all tangled up the inhospitable ecosystem of the Entertainment Industrial Complex. Our central character is Agatha (a pretty good Mia Wasikowska), an upbeat pyromaniac who goes AWOL from a mental ward in Florida. Agatha has just returned to her native Hollyweird in a doomed attempt to reconnect with her terrible showbiz family, specifically teenage brother Benjie (Evan Bird, so bad I doubt he could act his way out of wet rice paper), a petulant, racist, drug addicted TV star rapidly aging out of his starring role on some sort of garbage Nickelodeon show. Her parents, who may or may not be incestuous siblings, are Stafford (a sleepy John Cusack), a New Age therapist more concerned with his personal brand than with his patients’ wellbeing, and Cristina (Olivia Williams), Benjie’s momager, whose primary talents seem to be smoking cigarettes, being thin, and crying by the infinity pool. Agatha eventually gets a job as a personal assistant for the washed-up starlet Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, truly awful), a ditzy, insecure, over-the-hill shithead of a woman, and a potential love interest in the form of Robert Pattinson, a limo driver with aspirations of becoming an actor/screenwriter/whatever (this is Hollywood, after all.)
Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner move these chess pieces around the board with maximum contrivance, scoring easy points against all the usual targets: vain actors, out-of-control child stars, uncaring managers and agents, crass producers, etc. Characters are hyperbolically cruel and stupid in ways that go beyond satire and seem downright juvenile. The best satires thrive on the searing combo of bile and genuine insight, but everything here feels lazy and perfunctory. And while I obviously haven’t been privy to every frustration Cronenberg has experienced during his four-decade career, my impression is that, in general, he seems to be an artist who’s been very successful working outside the Hollywood system, getting movies made and remaining true to his own unique aesthetic. To an outsider like me, it seems like Cronenberg has very little to complain about. This—in conjunction with Cronenberg’s status as a steadfast, Toronto-bred outsider—is perhaps why Maps feels so unearned and inauthentic. From where I sit, Bob Altman can get away with this shit because he’s a Hollywood lifer. C-Berg simply isn’t, and his cynicism here is repulsive.
It doesn’t help that Maps to the Stars is the ugliest and most poorly-staged movie of CroCro’s entire filmography. While the shift to digital photography has liberated some directors (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh jump to mind), the move has been fatal for Craggles, who can’t seem to light or compose for digital for shit. Maps is flat and ugly, but not in a way that seems purposeful. But even if it’s intentional, the shift in technology is no excuse for how lame some of these scenes are blocked and edited. The film has vague supernatural elements, but I’ve seen Excel spreadsheets that have conjured more atmosphere and eerie dread than the light dusting of phantasmagoria that populates Maps. And there’s one “suspense” scene in particular involving a dog, a drunk, and a loaded gun that’s meant to be tense, but which is fucked up so badly that it made me want to throw feces at the projectionist like an ill-tempered bonobo. It felt like that experimental comedy Lars von Trier made where he let a randomizing computer program pick all of the shots. And sure, that’s fine for some low-stakes von Trierian toomfoolery, but presumably Cronenberg was aiming for something a little more Hitchcockian.
Maps to the Stars is a grueling experience. Sad, especially since Cronenberg used to be one of my favorite directors. But this? This is a Map you rip up and use as toilet paper.