On the first Tuesday evening (cheap night) that Maps to the Stars played in Winnipeg, at the closest thing we have to an arthouse cinema (after the real arthouse cinema, the Globe, was closed earlier in the year), there were eight of us watching David Cronenberg’s new film. Pretty dismal numbers. Needless to say, the film was gone in a week, though it’s playing at a different theatre for another week. Clearly, Winnipeggers aren’t that keen on Canada’s most prolific, and surely among its all-time best, directors. And since I can’t think of too many people to whom I would recommend Maps to the Stars, I suppose that’s not surprising.
For my part, I’ve always found Cronenberg’s films thought-provoking and under-appreciated, and some are excellent (my favourites include Spider, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, eXistenZ and Scanners), so I was excited to be watching a Cronenberg film months before its release in the U.S. I knew almost nothing about Maps to the Stars (as it should be), but I had seen it described as a comedy. Anyone coming to the film expecting a comedy is in for a nasty shock. Even to call it a dark comedy is misleading, though there were a few laughs and the film is clearly meant to be a satire of Hollywood. The film is strongest as a drama and has elements of horror, but I would put the film in the psychological thriller genre.
To even begin to describe the plot of Maps to the Stars is to take away one of the primary joys of watching the film, because the timing of its revelations is critical. So I will simply describe a few of the key characters in the film. We have Julianne Moore playing Havannah Sagrand, a disturbed actress who keeps seeing, and talking to, her long-dead mother (as a young woman) and wants desperately to play her mother in a new film, even if people have to die for that to happen. Then there’s Mia Wasikowska as a young woman haunted by demons of her own who has met Carrie Fisher on Twitter and, through Fisher (and yes, Fisher appears in the film), gets a job as Sagrand’s personal assistant. John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, a TV psychotherapist who could use some serious therapy himself. Stafford’s wife, Christina, is played by Olivia Williams and she has got a few too many crosses to bear, including her 13-year-old son, Benjie (played by Evan Bird), a confused, arrogant, angry and moody child star. Robert Pattinson as a limousine-driver also has some important scenes. Throw all of these ingredients together (and yes, they do somehow connect), add a pinch of malevolent ghosts, and you’ve got an explosive concoction in the making.
Moore’s acting is incredible, Wasikowska is always fun to watch, Cusack is remarkable at playing a (well, I won’t give it away, but he’s remarkable doing it) and Williams does very well. Bird and Pattinson, on the other hand, weren’t always convincing. The cinematography and music are excellent, the writing is intelligent, darkly amusing and, for the most part, well-constructed. Some of the scenes didn’t quite work for me, which are probably Cronenberg’s fault.
All in all, Maps to the Stars felt as much like David Lynch as David Cronenberg (be afraid!). Yup, it’s creepy and horrifying at the same. This is dark, dark stuff, folks. Stay away! One critic (Robbie Collin) said it perfectly when he said this is “a film you want to unsee – and then see and unsee again.” This assumes one actually enjoyed the film at some level, which (I hate to admit) I did. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I am going to let it slide just over the line to ***+. My mug is up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.