Maps to the Stars (2014): Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg's scathing satire on Hollywood

Julianne Moore as the washed-up Havana Segrand is a sight to behold

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Maps to the Stars, Movie Poster, Directed by David Cronenberg, starring Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson , Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon and Evan Bird
Maps to the Stars (2014) By David Cronenberg
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 6.6
Genre: Drama
CastJulianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson
Country: Canada USA | Germany | France
Language: English
Runtime111 min

Summary: A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

Maps to the Stars is a 2014 drama film from the master Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Written for the screen by Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars is essentially a scathing satire on Hollywood—an ideal microcosm of the entertainment industry as a whole in the Western world—that showcases the dark side of the Tinsel town which often gets occluded by the shimmering facade of glitz and glamour. In Cronenberg’s own words, "Hollywood is a world that is seductive and repellent at the same time, and it is the combination of the two that makes it so potent." The movie stars Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson , Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon and Evan Bird in pivotal roles. Maps to the Stars premiered in competition for the coveted Palme d'Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Moore won the Best Actress Award.

Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg, Best Actress Award at Cannes
Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand in Maps to the Stars
Maps to the Stars revolves around an aging actress in the twilight of her acting career. Havana Segrand is both rich and famous but is haunted by the memories of her actress mother, Clarice Taggart (played by Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire accident. Havana’s only hope to revive her fast fading career is to star in the remake of the 1960s motion picture that had made her mother a cult symbol.  Having lived all her life in her mother’s shadow, Havana seems caught in some kind of a Freudian complex wherein she imagines herself to be a victim of her mother's sexual abuse as the visions of her mother’s ghost continue to torment her psychologically. Havana takes psychiatric help of Dr. Stafford Weiss who is a new age therapist and self-help guru with a large clientele of high-profile celebrities. Stafford's ambitious wife Cristina (played by Olivia Williams) manages the career of their thirteen-year-old celebrity son Benjie—the child star of the teenage comedy blockbuster titled "Bad Babysitter". In other words, the Weiss family is an archetypal Hollywood dynasty. But, the family has a few dark secrets which it must guard to keep its impeccable reputation intact.

John Cusack as Dr. Stafford Weiss and Evan Bird as Benjie Weiss in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg
John Cusack as Dr. Weiss and Evan Bird as Benjie
In Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg, in his characteristic fashion, creates a dark, sinister, almost nightmarish world oozing with the malice, cruelty and hypocrisy of the highly ambitious but insecure and jealous beings that inhabit it. In painting such a sombre canvas, Cronenberg perhaps seems to be testing his own limits. While discussing the possibility of it being his most cruel film yet, Cronenberg explains, "It is possible! I have made terrifying movies but here the cruelty is on a psychological level, more realistic. I have the feeling that in this world (which is not far as much as we would like), cruelty is a natural aptitude. Ambition, cruelty and hypocrisy are truly innate. People have a really sweet language, even caring, but as soon as an ambition is challenged we resolve problems with lot of cruelty and brutality." Maps to the Stars also marks Cronenberg’s much-anticipated (as far as his hardcore fans are concerned) return to the horror genre after a hiatus of almost three decades. While Maps to the Stars cannot really be classified as pure horror, there are a few sequences in the movie that may put some of the goriest scenes in cinema to shame.

Mia Wasikowska as Agatha Weiss, in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg
Mia Wasikowska as Agatha in Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg is the pioneer of body horror or venereal horror—a sub-genre of horror fiction in which the horror is propagated through the graphic degeneration of the human body. Cronenberg, who is touted as one of the most daring and demanding auteurs in the English-speaking world, is often said to be competing with the likes of David Lynch, Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino for the numero-uno spot. Cronenberg is a master when it comes to blending the psychological with the physical. While he mainly relied on horror and sci-fi elements to explore these recurring motifs in his earlier films, his later works serve as profound treatises on human psychology and how it influences physical health and well being.  One of Cronenberg’s greatest talents is his ability to spot the right actors for his roles and elicit singular performances from each one of them. Some of the best examples that come to mind are Vigo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (2007), Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ (1999) Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988), Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986), and James Woods in Videodrome (1983).

Robert Pattinson as Jerome in Maps to the Stars, the chauffer dating Agatha, Directed by David Cronenberg
Robert Pattinson as Jerome in Maps to the Stars
In Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg manages to extract a nigh perfect performance from Julianne Moore. Moore is undoubtedly one of the most talented actresses of our generation but unfortunately the last half-a-decade hasn’t been very productive for her. But, vintage Cronerberg, Moore is back with a bang! As the washed-up Havana Segrand, she is a sight to behold. Moore’s mesmerizing turn in Maps to the Stars harks back to her remarkable performances in films like Short Cuts (1993), Boogie Nights (1997) and The Hours (2002). There are so many different sides to Havana's personality that sometimes she appears to be suffering from Dissociative identity disorder. To her credit, Moore succeeds in seamlessly bringing these conflicting aspects of Havana’s persona to life. Perhaps, the best way to describe Havana is as a mellow version of Norma Desmond. While Havana has Norma’s ego, she certainly lacks her chutzpah. If need be, Havana can emote as well as Norma, but she may not be able to match her at theatrics. But, unlike Desmond, she tends to expose here vulnerable side far more often which probably makes her appear more human and hence less unlikeable than Norma.

Mia a Wasikowska as Agatha, Julianne Moore as Havana, in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg
A Still from Maps to the Stars
While the real star of the show is Julianne Moore, the acting all around is quite solid. Speaking of other actors, Robert Pattinson plays his part with minimal effort but great conviction. Pattinson certainly has come a long way since his Twilight Saga days. Cosmopolis (2012) was the break that he needed and since then he has never looked back (he has been working quite hard to change his image and already has a decent résumé to show for his efforts... while he impressed everybody with a brilliant performance in David Michôd's The Rover, he's just finished shooting for Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert wherein he will be seen essaying the role of T.E. Lawrence). Also, it’s heartening to see John Cusack try his hands at something as different as this; he makes the part of Dr. Weiss his own. Mia Wasikowska once again plays the part of a psychotic teenager to perfection; but, it’s somewhat worrying to see a young female talent get typecast in such a way. While Olivia Williams and Sarah Gadon fit their respective roles to a tee, the young Evan Bird shines as Benjie Weiss—a part that seems greatly inspired by one Justin Bieber.

Robert Pattinson as Jerome in Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore as Havana, intimate moment at the back of the limo, sex, the chauffer dating Agatha, Directed by David Cronenberg
Havana and Jerome share an intimate moment
It would be a travesty to consider Maps to the Stars as Cronenberg’s brainchild. Bruce Wagner deserves as much credit as Cronenberg, if not more, for making this film a reality. Wagner had written the screenplay almost a decade back and though Cronenberg was quite keen on filming it they couldn’t get the required funding. The duo had to wait for a long time before they could arrange the necessary funds. So, Maps to the Stars wouldn’t have been possible without a long collaboration between Cronenberg and Wagner—both of whom are its true auteurs. Cronenberg sums up Maps to the Stars beautifully, "It’s kind of a satire on Hollywood. It’s very typical of Bruce Wagner’s writing. And it’s sort of a condensed essence of Bruce. And while it’s satirical, it’s also very powerful, emotionally, and insightful and funny. You could say it’s a Hollywood film because the characters are agents, actors and managers, but it is not a satire like The Player."

Julianne Moore as Havana, John Cusack as Dr. Stafford Weiss, giving new age therapy, in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg
Maps to the Stars: Dr. Stafford Weiss' new age therapy 
Maps to the Stars reminds this critic of several self-castigating films from Hollywood, right from Sunset Blvd. (1950)  to Mulholland Dr. (2001), The Last Tycoon (1976) to Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992) to What Just Happened (2008). While there’s nothing new about the subject matter, it is the treatment of subject that makes Maps to the Stars stand out. We do witness the old motifs but the perspective is quite fresh. The Hollywood that’s on display here is quite different. It’s a place where child prodigies are a common occurrence. For these talented little parvenus anyone aged 23 or above is menopausal. Maps to the Stars mocks the hollowness that’s slowly engulfing our world. Showbiz is most susceptible to this vacuum of human emotions propagated by the all-pervasive insecurity, hypocrisy, and mediocrity that plague the life of modern man. Incest and murder are two of the major themes that run through Maps to the Stars. But, in a nihilistic setting, they appear rather innocuous and as natural as breathing. Robert Pattinson’s chauffeur character (he simply dreams of becoming a writer-cum-actor and is even willing to convert to a more suitable religion like Scientology in order to realize his ambition) best depicts the nothingness (as well as a sense of desperation) that’s reverberates through the Tinsel town.

Mia Wasikowska as Agatha Weiss, Robert Pattinson as Jerome Fontana, in Maps to the Stars, Directed by David Cronenberg
A Still from Maps to the Stars
Overall, Maps to the Stars is a riveting work of cinematic that serves as a testament to the genius of an artist working at the height of his creative powers. Hollywood is mostly perceived as some kind of a utopia for honest artists but the reality is much grimmer. As hyper as Cronenberg’s film may appear in its depiction of the Tinsel town, it’s not very far away from reality. Every year dozens of celebrities die as a result of drug abuse. So, it’s actually more alarming than what most of us feel. In Maps to the Stars, there’s not a single character that’s likeable. We may pity them but it’s quite difficult to like them. The movie has very many chilling sequences; probably the most graphic of them all is the one in which an actress’ psychotic aide kills her by repeatedly bashing her head with a Genie Awards statuette (which the celebrity had won). For this scene, Cronenberg has used his own statuette which he had won for Spider (2002). Cronenberg, on being asked if he felt guilty for transforming his Genie Awards statuette in a weapon, cheekily remarked: "No! In fact, I think the Canadian sculptor Sorel Etrog who created it would have been delighted." Maps to the Star, like all Cronenberg films, is not an easy film to watch, especially for the uninitiated. The movie requires not only patience but also composure and is strictly recommended for serious viewers only.

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