Birdman was the boffo Hollywood navel-gazing opus par excellence—the sort of thing the Academy just can’t resist. I’m told that the film was supposed to be a satire of actorly self-indulgence, and I just didn’t get the joke. To me, the wafer-thin paper cut-outs that populate the film—the pompous stage actor, the druggy blonde actress, the humorless critic with forever-pursed lips—were not so much knowing jabs at the business as they were boring stock characters. Alejandro Iñárritu’s flair for the dramatic was certainly on display—in, for instance, the film’s wildly frenetic soundtrack and the feeling of immediacy created by its crazy long shots—but overall it felt to me more like a wastebasket of clichés than a bonfire of the vanities. To a pretentious director like Iñárritu, maybe this is what it looks like to bravely satirize himself and the industry.
David Cronenberg’s new movie Maps to the Stars visits the same well of acidic satire, though it comes as little surprise that the cult director of “body horror” opts for a more gruesome and ghoulish spin than the magical realism of Iñárritu’s film. This is risky territory, even for a director with as unique and controversial a sensibility as Cronenberg: a story of insecure, aging celebrities, venal agents, and pampered child stars could easily turn into an exercise in making cheap shots.
Arguably, that’s exactly what Maps to the Stars is: Sunset Boulevard by way of The Player and Videodrome. Julianne Moore plays a yoga-doing, yogurt-gobbling diva whose laugh lines grow ever more exaggerated and desperate as the bygone heyday of her career gets farther away. She pines to play the same role made famous by her abusive mother, a 1950s starlet, in a forthcoming remake, due to some truly messed-up parental issues. She does everything short of offering oral sex to the director to get the role, and it doesn’t seem out of the question that she would go that far. (There’s a running gag about actresses letting a certain casting director urinate in their rectums to secure roles.) Moore’s character gets therapy from a ludicrous New Age guru played by a suitably facile John Cusack; meanwhile, a young woman with facial burns and long black gloves shows up from Jupiter (get it—she’s a space cadet), Florida, determined to be the best darn personal assistant (or “chore whore”) Moore has ever had.
The people who make trailers, of course, know what they’re doing. The clip for Maps to the Stars makes it look like a Single White Female/The Crush-style tale of a psycho lady whose pathology violently intrudes into a normal family’s life. That’s probably for the best, since the reality of the film is much more fantastical and sexually disturbing. Some of the actors demonstrate the affect-less, wooden presence that Cronenberg often elicits from his performers. (A Bieber-esque child star played by Evan Bird seems to be intended as a parody of a callow youth with too much money and an impressive record of stints in rehab, but he exudes all the humanity of a mannequin.)
As in Cronenberg’s previous disaster, Cosmopolis (2012), the actors often seem to be more vehicles for ideas than actual characters. (Then again, who knew that the writing of Don DeLillo would be so leaden on the big screen? Maybe it’s a good thing that his works have not really been adapted as films.) After watching Robert Pattinson intone two hours of techno-gibberish in Cosmopolis, I should have known to steer clear of Maps to the Stars, which includes the vampiric heartthrob in a less prominent role as an aspiring writer/actor who drives limousines.
His character is more naturalistic here, though, and he provides a nice foil to the breakout star of the film, Agatha, played with malevolent intensity by Mia Wasikowska. If Pattinson’s limo driver is less deep than he aspires to be—just another jaded would-be writer who works a shitty day-job in LA—Agatha runs a lot deeper and weirder than most seem to realize. Like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Maps to the Stars plays with the hoary old trope of the bright-eyed ingénue getting off the bus with big dreams in LA. While Naomi Watts played an archetypal innocent whose dreams go horribly wrong, Wasikowska’s Agatha has merely learned to inhabit the role to manipulate and dupe the narcissistic Hollywoodites around her.
Indeed, despite generous dollops of Cronenbergian horror and dread, Maps to the Stars can be quite funny when it plays with Hollywood clichés. Agatha plays the doe-eyed Middle American, who says she met Carrie Fisher on Twitter and “we became like, really good friends”—whatever that means on the world’s most superficial medium. (Take it from us—our fleeting dreams of brushing up against Hollywood greatness were crushed when actor Taye Diggs seemed to follow @tropicsm—more or less by accident, as it turns out.) She asks Pattinson if he drives “a lot of celebrities,” and his first answer is “I had Al Gore once.” The former vice president is just another celeb, roughly on the level of Juliette Lewis, who Agatha notes, with a disapproving scowl, is a Scientologist. Pattinson says that he was thinking of converting—“just as a career move.” Here is Hollywood vacuousness and desperation at its most wonderful. (WWXD—what would Xenu do?)
Agatha is, of course, the fulcrum of the movie, and the stock types played by Moore, Cusack, and Pattinson all move around her. She’s the one square peg, the only person who is not seeking traditional LA goals of fame or money—her quest is much more personal. You could say she’s even motivated by love—a furtive, destructive love, but still something more intimate and real than the generalized adoration that many actors and writers crave.
Agatha makes for a fittingly dark mirror to Hollywood in another key way: her physical appearance. Tropics of Meta has a well-established allergy to most academic talk of “the body,” but it’s hard to avoid how the corporeal self figures into a movie by Cronenberg, who once made a movie about people who think sticking their penises in wounds sustained in car accidents is hot (1996’s Crash). Agatha cuts a frumpy figure, her bangs a lifeless brown and her long black gloves concealing the scars of her traumatic experience in a fire; even when she becomes glamorous, carrying big shopping bags from a luxury shop for Moore, she remains the same dark outline against the backdrop of sunny LA.
Her “deformity,” as Moore puts it, seems to set superficial Angelenos at ease. Pattinson rejects her romantic advances, but he also feels comfortable around her because she is clearly not a candidate for intercourse. (Meanwhile, she has made more headway in Hollywood with a few clever tweets and a bus pass than he has in years of driving around the rich and fabulous.) The disfiguring scars on Agatha’s face have the most profound effect on Moore, who—at least initially—views her as such a lower, damaged being that the assistant reassures her in her own fading vanity and beauty. Even taking her on as an employee, Moore comments with characteristic un-self-awareness, is like a charity project. Little does she know that Agatha is the one using her, not the other way around. (It’s also likely that Agatha’s outward disfigurement is meant to reflect the internal emotional and psychological ugliness of many LA denizens.)
Maps to the Stars unwinds with the reveal of some shocking family secrets, before Agatha’s deranged strategy devolves into a bloody fracas of violence and sex. Some will find Cronenberg’s take on Hollywood dysfunction to be just too easy, a compilation of tired gestures about narcissistic actors and mercenary “players”; others will find his invocation of ghosts, symbolism, and old Hollywood nostalgia to be pretentious and self-indulgent. But to this fan of the director’s uneven canon, there is enough going on to hold my attention, as we watch the slow-motion train-wreck of these unfortunate Angelenos unfold through Cronenberg’s audacious and bizarre vision.
It’s not his best and it’s not his worst—it doesn’t quite rise to the level of A History of Violence (2005) in my view, nor does it sink to the utterly insufferable depths of Cosmopolis—but the film manages to leave an impression, especially through the schizophrenic sincerity of Wasikowska’s Agatha. I appreciate a director who is willing to take some chances even when they don’t work—though perhaps that makes my own irate reaction to Birdman look inconsistent. I could never get past the sense that Iñarittu’s film thought itself to be caustic and satirical, but still contained an ultimately unalloyed core of self-congratulation for actors and other artistes. Maps to the Stars may be many things, but it definitely does not cherish a secret self-regard as a product of Hollywood.