Maps to the Stars (2014)

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*. I have a lot of respect for David Cronenberg. Like any true original he’s been a pioneer. For forty years he’s blazed trails while developing a highly individual, instantly recognizable style.
*. It’s also the case that he’s a director who has managed to prolong his career quite effectively by changing gears and pursuing different interests as he’s gotten older, while at the same time staying true to his independent vision.
*. Not that he’s had a lot of options. How many big commercial hits has Cronenberg had? The Fly and what else? And yet he has been able to keep making movies with top Hollywood talent for decades. That’s an incredible achievement in the film business.
*. This brings us to Maps to the Stars, a movie which received some high-level critical praise but which hardly anybody saw. It is not a bad movie. It is a Cronenberg movie. It is also a movie I had a lot of trouble sitting through the first time I saw it. I liked it a little more on a re-watch, but I still find it to be an intriguing misfire.
*. Apparently Bruce Wagner wrote the script in the early ’90s and it languished for years in what’s known as “development hell.” It’s not a bad script, but it strikes me as something that probably reads a lot better on the page than it works on screen. Either that or the cast just wasn’t feeling it.
*. It’s a good cast, but they look a little lost, as though Cronenberg wasn’t giving them a lot of help. I was going to complain that most of them, aside from Julianne Moore, look like they’re on tranquilizers, but since most of them (including Moore) are playing character who are on drugs I guess this isn’t really a criticism. Nevertheless, the performances do give the movie an odd feel, as though we’re watching an experimental theatre group read through their lines. Or maybe it’s just that they’re playing actors who are always performing. That’s certainly the restrained vibe John Cusack gives off.

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*. This, in turn, may explain why I liked the scene set around the conference table where the talent and the suits are talking about Benjie’s role in Bad Babysitter 2. It’s even set up to look like a script reading, with everybody getting into their part.
*. Less successful is the scene that plays out between the four “brat pack” youngsters where they talk about selling their shit (literally) to celeb stalkers. On the page, this must have seemed clever and quick, but it plays out in a very heavy, artificial way, again like a read-through. It’s also a long scene that doesn’t tell us anything that’s not obvious.
*. What’s the point of this movie anyway? Cronenberg saw its theme as being an exposé of the fatal, seductive power of Hollywood. Aside from that, which is something we likely already were aware of, what do we learn? That celebrity culture is amoral? That glamour is only skin-deep? That Hollywood fucks children up? I learned that last lesson from Mommie Dearest.
*. As if all of this wasn’t trite enough, there is something more than a little grating in the narcissism and self-pitying tone of these insider looks at how awful Hollywood is. You know, you can always leave.

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*. The ghosts. What are we to make of them? On the DVD commentary Wagner says that he believes in ghosts but Cronenberg doesn’t (or else he sees them as psychoses). My own interpretation was that they were meant to be seen as something out of Ibsen, the sins of the (incestuous) parents being visited upon their children. I think that helps explain why they’re so angry too. I mean, why does the little girl have it in for Benjie?
*. Sometimes bold risks pay off, other times they don’t. As an example of the latter we have Moore not only playing a scene sitting on the toilet, but farting and wiping her ass. Bold, but I don’t think necessary. Apparently she was demonstrating her dominance over Agatha by forcing her to bear witness. I can see that, but Cronenberg really seems to be getting a kick out of making Moore look bad in this movie, and it gave me an unpleasant feeling.

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*. A bold move that pays off is making the cutie-pie juvenile hero Benjie (Evan Bird) into such a dislikeable jerk. He even calls his agent a Jew faggot, which is about as politically incorrect as you can get. He’s pretty much a monster throughout, but at the same time I think the movie wants us to feel sympathy for him. I don’t think they pull it off in the end, but it is a daring move.

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*. It’s also bold to show male full-frontal nudity. But here’s the problem with that scene: Sterl has just got up from being the middle player in a three-way with two girls. And he isn’t hard! Or he’s half-mast at best. What’s up with that? On the commentary Wagner mentions his fear that this scene was going to get the film an X rating and I wonder if an erect penis is more dangerous in this regard than one in a flaccid state. I’m also not sure why they would feel threatened by an X rating. This movie had a very limited release and was never going to draw in a mass audience anyway.
*. I can think of neither explanation nor excuse for the god-awful CGI fire effects used to depict Cristina’s act of self-immolation. As I’ve said several times before, if you can’t do an effect right then you shouldn’t do it at all. Here they were a long, long way from doing it right.
*. The ending left me unmoved, but that might have been intentional as well. In any event, who are we to blame for this tragedy? The movie biz? Agatha’s and Benjie’s parents? The ghosts? Or is it something mythic, their fate being written in the stars? Perhaps all of the above. But I didn’t care. Benjie was a spoiled kid, not in the sense of being rich and pampered but in the sense of having gone bad like spoiled meat. I had no interest in him. And I was never sure just what Agatha’s problem was and why she was acting up. So pack them both off to a better world. Liberty.

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