It takes a truly talented filmmaker to make a movie as unpleasant to sit through as Maps to the Stars. David Cronenberg has made some of my favorite movies and will always be a director I hold in high regard. The first Cronenberg flick I saw was The Fly and it holds up as well today as it did when I first saw it over a decade ago. His early body horror flicks like The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome are classics. In recent years he’s become an even more interesting filmmaker, crafting dark masterpieces like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. A Dangerous Method wasn’t great but it held my interest and featured three great performances. Hell, I even liked Cosmopolis despite its perogative to keep me at arm’s length and make me squirm. I’m fine with squirming. I’m the guy who actively seeks out the most extreme horror movies I can find. But Maps to the Stars made me squirm in a different way. I wasn’t just uncomfortable with what I was watching, I was angered. DEEPLY FUCKING ANGERED. I haven’t hated a movie this much since Leprechaun: Origins.
I am reminded of what Roger Ebert said about Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (a movie I like quite a bit). He said of it, “I admire what Cronenberg has done here. It’s an amazing job, It’s a brilliant job. It’s one of the most unpleasant movies I’ve ever seen and I hated most of it.” I could apply only half of that criticism to Maps to the Stars because there’s nothing about it I admire besides some of the performances. Cronenberg has always delighted in pushing his audience’s buttons. For god’s sake, he made a movie about people who get turned on by car accidents. But in Maps to the Stars, he’s pushing buttons that dozens of other movies have already pushed time and time again. For example, did you know that most Hollywood celebrities are fucked up narcissists? I know! Fucking crazy right?! I would never have guessed that! Thank god David Cronenberg and his screenwriter Bruce Wagner are here to rip the lid off Hollywood! That’s never been done before! Oh wait, it was done in Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Swimming with Sharks, The Bold and the Beautiful, Tropic Thunder, A Star is Born, Mulholland Drive, Get Shorty, Adaptation, and a hundred other movies. But this is Cronenberg! Surely he brings something new to the table right?
Nope. Not at all. The movie consists of a bunch of whiny, self-obsessed, insane, egotistical stars and wannabe stars who act whiny, self-obsessed, insane, and egotistical. Which would be fine if Cronenberg and Wagner had anything interesting to say about their characters but they don’t. Other than, “these people are horrible aren’t they?” Yep, they are. So why are you making me watch them for two goddamn hours? The film also contains incest, murder, sex, some lame fucking ghosts, a dead dog, and the worst fire FX in the history of cinema. Good times. There will be many spoilers in the rest of this rant cuz I don’t give a fuck. Besides, everything that happens is so telegraphed the damn movie spoils itself.
The cast cannot be blamed. At least, not entirely. Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha, a schizophrenic pyromaniac who burned herself in a fire years ago because incest or something. She returns to LA after a stint in an insane asylum and befriends a limo driver/wannabe actor played by Robert Pattinson. Her parents are played by John Cusack and Olivia Williams. Cusack is a successful celebrity self-help guru and Williams is the caretaker to their son, thirteen year old movie star, Benji (Evan Bird). Benji was clearly modeled after Justin Bieber. He’s obnoxious, arrogant, repugnant and recently got out of rehab. Then there’s Julianne Moore as Havana, an aging film star living in the shadow of her mother, a famous actress who died years ago. She’s trying to land a role in a remake of a movie her mother starred in. She hires Agatha as her personal assistant, there’s lots of scenes where these characters act like total assholes, secrets about the past are revealed, and then everybody dies. Yippee.
Nothing is surprising about this movie. You can see every ‘shocking moment’ coming from 10, 000 miles away. Like the relationship between Agatha and Havana. We know Agatha is a crazy person with homicidal tendencies. We know Havana is a cruel bitch. So what will probably happen between the two of them? Yep, you guessed it, Agatha will kill Havana. We know this from the first second they meet but since it takes forever and we don’t give a shit about either character all we can say is, ‘about damn time’ when it finally occurs. Then there’s the ‘shocking scene’ where Benji shoots a dog. He’s hanging out with some other celebrities; they’re getting high and playing with what they think is an unloaded gun. Being keeps pulling the trigger on himself and pointing it menacingly at his friends. I knew, of course, that there was a bullet left in the gun and that somebody was gonna get shot. I was hoping for Benji. Then a dog walks into the room. It’s dead a second later. There’s no build up and no previous set up for the dog. It’s just there to get shot. I dislike animals getting killed in movies but you know what? That’s my personal problem to get over so I don’t hate the scene because of that. I hate the scene because it’s so damn obvious. The dog shows up, you say to yourself, ‘he’s gonna shoot it’, and then he does. There’s no impact at all.
Beyond the not-shocking moments, what else is there to this movie? Not fucking much, that’s what. If Cronenberg and Wagner think this an expose on Hollywood and celebrities, they’re about twenty years too late. If they think it’s a satire, then why isn’t it funny? If they think it’s some kind of Hollywood nightmare made flesh, then why isn’t it more dreamlike? If they think it’s some kind of morality/incest fable, then what’s the fucking point? And don’t give me that bullshit line about how ‘the point is there is no point’. Fuck you. That’s such a goddamn cop out. If that’s what you take away from this movie that’s only because Cronenberg’s name is attached to it and you’re struggling to come up with an excuse for this mess. If this had been directed by a nobody, you wouldn’t be defending it.
There is one very good thing in the film and that’s Julianne Moore. She’s terrific. She plays the role BIG and it seems like she’s the only actor who got that the best way to play this melodramatic material was as high camp. If everybody else had played to her level, this might have been an entertaining mess. As it is though, the rest of the cast seems too aware they’re in a Cronenberg movie and act very serious cuz that’s what his films usually require. No one gives a bad performance though. They all just take the wrong approach. This is a movie where Mia Wasikowska wants to marry her 13 year old brother and John Cusack massages his clients like a rapist while making them spout half-baked cliches and yet everyone acts like they’re in a serious art house drama! I understand that the best way to get a laugh is to act like you’re in on the joke but in Maps to the Stars, no one even seems to know what the joke is, including Cronenberg. You can never tell if a scene is supposed to be funny or serious and, as a result, it’s usually neither. Unless Moore is onscreen.
Beyond the shocking moments that aren’t shocking, the characters we hate, the satire that falls completely flat, and the dated points made about celebrities and Hollywood, the worst sin the movie commits is this: it’s boring. Really. Fucking. Boring. I never thought I’d say that about a Cronenberg movie but there it is. And I know that, ‘it’s boring’ is not the most enlightened criticism in the world but that’s how I felt during most of the run time. I didn’t care about what was happening, wasn’t laughing, and wasn’t gasping. I was just sitting there checking my watch and thinking about other, better Cronenberg movies.
Look, I do admire Cronenberg’s desire to bite the hand that feeds him. I even admire Pattinson, Wasikowska, and Cusack for avoiding big budget Hollywood bullshit and taking on more interesting projects. I don’t think Pattinson’s been in a major Hollywood movie since Twilight ended. Good for him that he wants to take roles in smaller films. Just pick a better one next time. And I will say this: Cronenberg is incapable of making a mediocre movie. Every film of his elicits a strong reaction from me and this is no different. It’s just that my reaction this time happens to be blind hatred. Maybe I didn’t get the movie. But guess what? I don’t want to get it. The idea of sitting through it again makes me want to gouge my fucking eyes out of my head. If I could turn back time and get those two hours back, I would.
In case you are a masochistic psychopath, Maps to the Stars is currently playing in select theaters. It is also available through On Demand, iTunes, and Amazon.