TIFF Review: 'Maps to the Stars'

Maps to the Stars
(Canada/Germany, 112 min.)
Dir. David Cronenberg, Writ. Bruce Wagner
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Evan Bird, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Robert Pattinson
Programme: Galas (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Maps to the Stars is fucked up in every best possible way. This scathing satire written by Bruce Wagner and directed by David Cronenberg lets the shit hit the fan and spray doo-doo all over Hollywood. Julianne Moore stars in a riotously batshit crazy performance as a sexy has-been actress named Havana Segrand who is eager to make a comeback and will do anything or anyone to win a coveted role. Maps unfolds Havana's attempt at a comeback in a twisted fever dream as she throws herself into the role that made her mother famous. Her mom, Clarice (played by Sarah Gadon), died in a fire and she haunts Havana as Havana tries to impress everyone that she is the best actress for the part. Talk about mommy issues. Havana sees the Oscar with this role, and the shoddy old Canadian Genie she displays in her living clearly isn't enough of a mark for a legacy. She wants the prize her mother never won.

Wagner's excellent screenplay takes aim at Hollywood's repellent fascination with itself as the story lines bounce stars and ghosts off one another in an all-out gangbang of self-indulgent behavior. One thread in Maps to the Stars features a Justin Bieber-y douchebag actor/punk kid named Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Like Havana, he's all washed up, since Hollywood chews up child actors more rapidly than it spits out aging actresses. Evan also struggles with ghosts, although his visitors are fellow children whose lives were cut short. It's not really a sixth sense that plagues Benjie... More like the same chronic sense of inadequacy that haunts him as he lives up to a legacy he cannot fairly fulfill, especially with the added pressure burdened on him by his celebrity naturopath father (John Cusack) and manager mother (Olivia Williams) who both manipulate his career and personal life to keep an icky secret out of the tabloids.

The thread that ties the film together features Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring actress who comes back to town to visit her family and breakout in Hollywood. Agatha, covered in burns from a childhood accident, gets a job as Havana's new assistant. The two are united by fire, and Cronenberg lets Agatha's horrific scars (and the ones she conceals) double as his signature body horror and as a figurative mark for the scars left behind by the unrelenting insanity of the Hollywood dream.

“This isn’t the most glamorous job,” Havana says to Agatha when she takes the role. That’s an understatement for sure. Nothing is safe and no topic is taboo for Wagner's biting satire as generations of hopeful stars are pulled into the Hollywood web Maps to the Stars is sexy, kinky, vulgar, funny, violent, and all around twisted. Everything looks beautifully grotesque in Cronenberg’s off-kilter angles and in-your-face direction: the A-list doesn’t look pretty when you see it this close.

Just look at Havana, with her collagen lips and sexy blonde hair. She’s a bimbo, but an ambitious one, and Moore relishes Havana’s air-headed determination to the hilt. Maps features one of Moore’s bolder and braver performances as she puts herself on display, making the aging actress a tool to be gawked at as if it’s a corpse in a museum. Moore exposes Havana’s seductive charm and her all-consuming narcissism as she amps up the crazy with colourful blonde moments and jolts of full-on madness. The strain of being such a public airhead is unimaginable, but Moore’s complexly ironic performance makes Havana one of those figures audiences love to hate.

Cronenberg takes the ensemble to darkly twisted heights as Moore leads a top-notch cast. Wasikowska is excellent as Agatha, the full-fledged crazy of the film, while Bird makes an impressive breakthrough turn by grappling with Benjie’s crippling insecurity and unmerited egotism. Robert Pattinson also makes a strong impression with limited screentime in his second turn with Cronenberg (following Cosmopolis), while Gadon is a seductive terror as Havana’s mommy from hell.

Cronenberg realizes all the subtleties of Wagner’s disturbing exposé on the emptiness and ugliness of celebrity. The Canadian master makes a rare trip to shoot outside the Canadian borders (Cronenberg almost always lets Canada double for America even in American films) and his use of the gaudy Hollywood landscape envisions an epic wasteland of bright lights and ugly pretty people. The cinematography and score by Cronenberg regulars Peter Suschitzky and Howard Shore situate Maps to the Stars in a surreal fairy-tale land where everything looks eerily familiar and is even more disturbing because it seems so convincingly and grotesquely plausible. The film pulses with a wicked sense of humour as violence and sex explode in the least censor board friendly way, while Maps throws very un-Hollywood taboos like taking a dump onscreen into the mix. Yes, enjoying a poop might be even more unthinkable than a role this good for an actress over fifty. Moore cruises Maps into Mulholland Dr. territory as she joins Cronenberg and company in exposing Hollywood the dream factory as the nightmare machine it really is. Just like in Mulholland Dr., Maps shows Hollywood as the place where dreams come to die.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.

Update: Maps to the Stars opens in Ottawa on Oct. 31.
Update 2: Maps screens at Canada's Top Ten on Jan. 10 & 11.