David Cronenbergs’s characters aren’t generally relatable. His films are stunted, awkward and unreal. They’re supposed to be like this – he doesn’t want you to have an enjoyable experience. In the past his films have wanted to involve their audience in an intense nightmare of moody mayhem, but Maps to the Stars is a little different.
It features an ensemble cast of universally troubled and psychotic Hollywood inhabitants, centering around the Weiss household (Cronenberg’s ‘Hollywood family’ incarnate). Parents Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) – a self-helping self-help guru to the stars – and Christina Weiss (Olivia Wilde) try to raise arrogant 13 year old movie star son Benjie (Evan Bird), who has recently started seeing dead people. Meanwhile their estranged daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a fellow seer of dead people, has been released from her mental hospital and is back in the area. Agatha befriends Hollywood hopeful Jerome (Robert Pattinson), and lands a job as personal assistant and chore-whore to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Havana is a loopy Gloria Swanson-esque Hollywood has-been, vying desperately to be cast in the lead role of a remake of a film that originally starred her mother as the lead.
In film industry fashion, everyone is connected to everyone else, and the incestuousness of the storyline doesn’t stop there. The intricate and methodically manufactured plot is full of revelations concerning the abnormal relationships of its characters. Not only is each of them involved in more ways than they should be with one another, but the film itself is a pastiche of numerous Hollywood films that have come before it, with the express intention of commenting on the repetitive and incestuous nature of the industry itself. Maps to the Stars looks and sounds like a Hollywood film, something Cronenberg films in the past haven’t quite managed (or haven’t wanted to manage), which is fitting given its content. As with the 71 year old director’s recent films, there are no talking typewriters or brainwashing video tapes; instead the weirdness is much more subtle, it’s almost unexplainable, but it’s still there.
A big problem with the film is the believability of its characters. They’re all hedonistic and melodramatic caricatures that sit uncomfortably in Cronenberg’s world. The performances in themselves aren’t bad, they’re certainly entertaining (particularly Moore’s hysterical Havana), but it never feels like we really get to know them, and even less grow to like them. The only potentially likable character is Robert Pattinson’s believable and untroubled Jerome, who seems to be infiltrating Hollywood from a safe distance, merely engaging in superficial relationships with its egomaniacal denizens. However, Jerome is only a peripheral character nestled amongst the ensemble, and doesn’t stand as a suitable creator of audience empathy. With the fantastical plot twists, psychotic characters and exaggerated performances the narrative is never boring, but I just didn’t care about anything that was happening.
But again, I have no doubt that this was Cronenberg’s express intention. He didn’t want to create relatable characters. Cronenberg, Jerome and the audience are all peering into an unbelievable, sensationalised allegory of Hollywood. With Brechtian technique, Cronenberg ostrasises the audience and makes them into an active observer. He intelligently and methodically invites you to objectively analyse his work, to think about what the film means, and ensures you aren’t the sort of generic passive receiver that Hollywood preys upon.
Whilst lacking character empathy isn’t necessarily a fatal blow – with several of Cronenberg’s own films proving this in the past – Maps to the Stars isn’t strange or inventive enough to stand up to his earlier works. It doesn’t immerse the audience in the cinematic emotion, and the mood and feeling of the film didn’t successfully translate. It is a cold and objective experience, not like the intense and involving madness of Videodrome or Naked Lunch.
The cinematic metaphors and complex narrative are pertinent, thorough and eternally applicable. Maps to the Stars is exceptionally meticulous and comprehensive in its plot and writing, but the realisation was disappointingly uninteresting. Whilst being a vast improvement on Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars lacks the emotional and visceral torment that Cronenberg has been so successful at creating in the past.
Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg, is being released in the UK on the 26th of September by Entertainment One, Certificate 18. Watch the trailer below.