How you respond to Maps to the Stars will depend a great deal on how you respond to David Cronenberg films altogether. I would place the film pretty firmly in the realm of his 21st century work. In other words, it’s not a horror film — at least in the strict sense. That said, if you know Cronenberg’s earlier work, it’s hard not to call his horror pictures to mind on numerous occasions. There’s certainly a measure of (non-fantasticated) “body horror” here, and I found it hard not to see parallels to Dead Ringers (1988). For that matter, Julianne Moore and John Cusack’s characters frequently seemed related to Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed in The Brood (1979) — minus Eggar actually giving “birth” to humanoid expressions of her inner rage. Whether you can make these connections or not, chances are you’re going to end up with a horror movie vibe from Maps to the Stars, even though this almost clinically detached skewering of Hollywood could best be described as a psychodrama satire that mutates into a psychodrama thriller — with some mystical overtones.
It is a difficult movie — at once bitterly funny, deeply unsettling and sometimes a little silly. That’s not a bad description of Hollywood and the cult of celebrity, too. Perhaps it is exactly the film it needs to be, but warm and fuzzy it is not. Some people will hate it passionately. Some have likened it to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). While I can see where they’re getting that, I think it’s a deceptive comparison. The film Cronenberg has made from Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is considerably more straightforward — in relative terms. Comparisons to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) are also simplistic (despite the fact that Julianne Moore is actually older than Gloria Swanson was in that). The plots are nothing alike, and Maps to the Stars has nothing to do with old Hollywood and isn’t in the least Gothic. No, as Hollywood tales go, this is its own particular can of worms.
The film starts with a fire-scarred young woman wearing black gloves and a T-shirt that reads, “I was a Bad Babysitter” (both of these things are important) arriving in Los Angeles on a bus. This is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who tells her chauffeur/wanna-be actor and screenwriter Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) that she’s in town to visit relatives. This turns out to be true, but not in any normal sense. However, her first visit is to the site of a burned down house that once belonged to self-help guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), and her main claim to L.A. seems to be that she’s Twitter “friends” with Carrie Fisher (who does appear as herself at one point). This connection — nebulous as it is — leads to her being employed by fading, pill-addled, self-absorbed actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Havana is desperate to play the role of a pyromaniac once played by her mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who later died in a fire. (Fires are a key element in the film.) As it turns out, Havana is being treated by Dr. Weiss, whose son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a recovering drug addict trying to make a comeback (at like 14) as a child star. How these characters intersect and how they relate comprise the increasingly dark story of the film — and it gets very dark indeed.
To call the results a cornucopia of mental illness (real and drug-induced), delusions, depravity, casual perversions, phonies and amorality would not be inapt. It would also be a simplification and dismissal of a complex and frequently just plain brilliant film. It also houses a Julianne Moore performance that blows the one in Still Alice off the screen. Actually, all of the performances are first rate. It takes real skill to make Evan Bird’s Justin Bieber-ish brat into something real and even sympathetic. A lot of what works lies in the way Cronenberg handles the film — notice, for example, that Agatha’s scarred appearance becomes more pronounced as her mental state deteriorates. Yes, it finally shifts into the melodrama that’s been just beneath the surface all along, but it ends on an almost elegiac — if deeply disturbing — note. But bear in mind, the movie means to disturb you. There’s room for that at the movies — on occasion. Rated R for strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material.