Cinematic Releases: Maps To The Stars

Maps to the Stars hits a limited theatrical run today.

"Okay kids. This is what an orgasm looks like."
David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is not for everyone, nor should it be.  Picking up where Cosmopolis left off, the 71 year old Canadian auteur’s 21st feature joins David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Bernard Rose’s ivansxtc in its savage, cynical excoriation of Hollywood and its unsavory miscreants’ synchronized paths towards self-destruction.  Where Lynch used surrealism to satirize studio hypocrisies by equating moguls with mobsters and Rose transposed Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich to a drug addicted Hollywood agent, Cronenberg applies his sterilized detachment to an ensemble cast of characters’ mutual downward spiral.  At first it seems like an aggressively self-aware swipe at over privileged celebrities at the end of their rope, dropping names of major Tinseltown players with similarly snarky pans across the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California.  But just when you think you know what Maps to the Stars is really about, it shifts gears and takes its band of outsiders down a dark and disturbing path of psychosexuality and extreme violence.

Formally speaking, David Cronenberg’s sustained cool distance provides a perfect framework for the jet black hilarity on display, with longtime collaborator Peter Suschitzky’s aseptic cinematography symmetrically poising Maps’ antagonists under a surgical lamp.  One of the fascinating detours in editing for Cronenberg is how he cuts away from Howard Shore’s ethereal white noise of a score.  Take for instance a dispute between the film’s disfigured and unhinged rabble rouser Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) and her limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison, fresh off of Cosmopolis).  As the angered Agatha storms off, the camera follows her as the soundtrack builds to a shriek before abruptly cutting away.  Masterfully controlled technicalities aside, Maps to the Stars notably sports one of Cronenberg’s most eclectic casts to date.  

"With these gloves, no one will ever be able to tell
that I'm the one that stole your sandwich."
Working for the first time with Cronenberg are Julianne Moore as a strung out actress living in the shadow of her late abusive starlet mother and John Cusack as a self-help therapist who may harbor more skeletons in the closet than he leads on.  A startling newcomer is Evan Bird as a 13 year old child star with too much access to wealth and drugs but not enough guidance and love from his parents, ala Macaulay Culkin or Drew Barrymore.  And of course what would a modern Cronenberg effort be without his ghostly muse Sarah Gadon, providing the neurotic proceedings with an eerie tightrope walk between life and largely death. 

Maps to the Stars will no doubt frustrate and even infuriate many viewers not accustomed to Cronenberg’s clinical and heartless approach to the material, following through an initially amusing premise poking fun at derailed actors towards a logically nihilistic end.  Cronenberg had been working on Maps for six years as financing continued to fall through before turning his attention to Cosmopolis, which had its own share of monetary difficulties.  Cronenberg always referred to Maps to the Stars as a hard sell and he’s not lying.  Much like Cosmopolis, from beginning to end the arctic master stands outside the plight of a collective you can neither endear to nor empathize with.  The aberrant content of the film’s second half will put off many, though Cronenberg die-hards will find a chuckle of appreciation at the use of a Genie Award as a weapon.  A sequence of self-immolation rendered via CGI runs the risk of distracting some not onto the intentionally jokey artifice.  That said, as a Cronenberg effort Maps to the Stars represents the self-driven intellectual artist at the height of his jaded snide with his blistering critique of the darkest alleyways of contemporary Hollywood.   

-Andrew Kotwicki