There are many versions of Hollywood I would never wish to live within—including the real one—but it appears those crafted by Bruce Wagner might be the most nightmarishly hedonistic, vile, and depressingly pathetic. A man who grew up in Los Angeles via Wisconsin and probably experienced many of the selfish acts of depravity he cynically puts to paper first hand, it says something about his artistic merits that he was able to write and direct two films (both based on what must be a sprawling novel I’m Losing You) placing a spotlight on the grotesquery of celebrity. Getting his third off the ground proved almost impossible, however, despite an auteur such as David Cronenberg attaching his name as director. It took almost six years in fact, but Maps to the Stars has finally arrived.
Neither writer nor director pull any punches throughout their LA-set ensemble, peppering in topics like incest, suicide, and schizophrenia as though they are Tinseltown staples while also providing caricatures of Lindsay Lohan as a washed up forty-something and Justin Bieber entitlement as a thirteen-year old movie star. These respective train wrecks—Julianne Moore‘s Havana Segrand and Evan Bird‘s Benjie Weiss—revel in their deplorable natures to ensure we never sympathize with either and that we laugh at them rather than alongside. This goes with the rest of the characters too considering each keeps us at an arm’s length while they expose the world we hunger to imagine lies beneath the glitz and glamor. Because despite our jealousy and dreams to be them, our inability to do so creates a yearning to watch them publicly implode.
It’s no surprise that the filmmakers color some deeply flawed and vain players to get us wishing a gruesome outcome will eventually smack the smug looks off their faces and mute the whining voices emanating from pursed lips. We cry from laughter at Havana’s temper tantrums in wanting the role her deceased mother (Sarah Gadon) won a Golden Globe for decades previously in its remake. We instantly love Benjie’s crass, take-no-bullshit attitude thanks to his knowing his popularity is bigger than the fact he just got out of rehab months after becoming a teenager. And we enjoy the smarm of his self-help guru father Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) caring only about his own image preceding a potentially lucrative book tour while massaging and verbally assaulting the tension from half naked women.
They are the Hollywood royalty entrenched in this world, part of the machine in a way that makes them work hard to stay in it over any semblance of pride in their occupations. They’re all con men: Havana willing to sleep with anyone to get a part, Benjie telling dying girls he’ll make a movie about them, and Stafford doing all he can to keep a secret that would ruin his career. And I’m talking a secret that he’s willing to erase family members for in a cold and calculated way that hardens all those around him into believing compassion is a made up word. A fickleness looms above everything a celebrity needs to stay relevant and it therefore only takes one foreign element to throw it all out of whack. Enter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska).
It is this role that really prevented me from truly enjoying the acerbic satire onscreen. Wasikowska is fantastic in the part—a burned girl from Florida arriving in LA to meet her Twitter friend Carrie Fisher (yes, she plays herself in a brief cameo) and eventually horn in on the common tapestry Havana and the Weisses unwittingly share. Her sweetness barely masks a self-aware craziness to make us want to love her as an underdog finding work, a boyfriend (Robert Pattinson‘s wannabe actor/writer and full-time limo driver), and a new lease on life she lost many years before. The catch is that her outsider proves to be the least interesting cog at the start of what’s a rather straightforward story progression. And when her past’s revealed with intrigue she merely becomes as messed up as the rest.
This is obviously the point—to show us the dark underbelly of Hollywood in all its pill-popping, bombshell secret hiding, sexually appetizing, and cutthroat glory. I guess it simply unfolded way too cleanly for me to care about anyone. I found that I wanted them all dead and yet when some do start to fall I felt nothing. No remorse, no pleasure … nothing. If anything I missed the comedy their horrific actions and sugary fake façades produced while they were alive. I wanted to continue watching them be mean to each other, not to be force-fed a plot trajectory that almost asked me to provide pity. Maps to the Stars is too dark to find merit in much beyond its acting and humor because the tone never matches the absurdly manufactured story with necessary over-the-top dramatics.
It’s instead a weird juxtaposition of realistic performances acting out a convoluted story some ham could have helped. Moore is brilliantly pathetic, Bird supremely malicious, Cusack deceptively conniving, Pattinson endearing enough to get what he wants, and Wasikowska the brooding yet smiley bundle of cuckoo connecting them. And I haven’t even mentioned the layer Wagner adds of Hollywood ghosts peeking through the veil to share details their subconscious wouldn’t know, each arriving to a Mulholland Drive/Angelo Badalamenti-esque score from Howard Shore. These dead figures torture them in ways that force them increase celebrity culture’s body count of hubris and neglect. In the end it seems everyone in the machine is fated to become a spirit ready to haunt the next generation of spoiled, undeserving brats trying to cut their teeth inside this infinite, nightmarish cycle of greed.