Maps to the Stars Is the Darkest Comedy About Hollywood You'll See
By Robert Silva
Lights, camera, dysfunction. Julianne Moore, John Cusack and David Cronenberg mix up a perfectly chilled dark comedy.
In the 1983 cult classic Videodrome, a mysterious TV station broadcasts scenes of sadistic violence, causing hallucinations in viewers that may — in director David Cronenberg’s twisted logic — be the dawn of a new form of human consciousness. They could also just be giving viewers brain tumors. Maps to the Stars, made by Cronenberg more than 30 years later, isn’t science fiction, but the psychological concerns aren't so different. It's set in the film industry in Los Angeles, a world where images have a way of creating their own reality.
Julianne Moore plays heavily medicated actress Havana Segrand, the deeply troubled daughter of an idolized Hollywood starlet, now reaching that age when actresses stop playing the sexy girlfriend and start receiving offers to play the doting mother. Fraught over her fading career, Havana wears a mask of breezy affability while frantically pitching herself to star in the high-concept remake of her mother’s own movie — as her mother.
Profiting from Havana's swarm of neuroses is TV shrink Dr. Weiss (a scary-good John Cusack), whose self-help platitudes on The Hour of Power are at odds with his own closely guarded secrets. His celebrity-guru credentials certainly haven’t aided his son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a tyrannical child actor fresh out of rehab, pounding energy drinks and set to collect a big payday for some sequel work if he can convince studio execs he's clean.
Sliding into this snakepit is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, In Treatment), an out-of-state burn victim who scores a dream job as Havana's "chore whore" (the star’s all-too-accurate term for the role of personal assistant) — thanks to a recommendation from Agatha’s friend on social media, Carrie Fisher, drolly playing herself. Agatha’s mysterious scars, partially hidden behind black gloves, occasion intrigue and repulsion from Havana, whose life is dedicated to creating clean, appealing surfaces. As Agatha makes the rounds on Rodeo for her abrasive boss, she enters an awkward romance with downbeat limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an actor ("er, actor-writer"), who seems to have already abandoned his dreams in spirit.
It's been said that Hollywood is a paranoid place because no one really knows who has power. Careers trajectories are volatile; as recent history has proven, your value in the business can plummet in an instant. No wonder then that the characters in Maps to the Stars’ pursue a certain mind-over-matter mentality: If they believe in their own power, others will too. Vulnerability is the same thing as weakness.
David Cronenberg directed Maps to the Stars, but it was written by novelist Bruce Wagner, author of a series of devastating and devastatingly hilarious novels about Los Angeles. A former student of Beverly Hills High, Wagner worked as a limo driver for celebrities, and the movie has a feel for these overheard, candidly profane conversations. The collaboration between writer and director results in a movie with the chilly calm of a surgical video — and a deep vein of dark humor.
The film’s transgressive commentary on media culture isn't for everyone. The defining image of Cronenberg’s Videodrome is of a videotape being forcibly inserted into a man's stomach. In Maps to the Stars, it’s a character being bludgeoned to death with a gold statuette, shot from the victim’s point of view. It's poignant, glassy, and disturbing. It's also the audience that, in effect, receives part of the blow. Prepare for a concussive experience.