Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2014)

21. Maps to the Stars

Like any cult-beloved director worth his salt, David Cronenberg has been attached to various unrealized projects over the years. In the early eighties, Pierre David wanted him to make an adaptation of “Frankenstein.” After “Videodrome,” he kicked around an insect-themed comedy called “Six Legs.” In the late nineties, he nearly indulged his gearhead side again with “Red Cars,” a biopic about race car driver Phil Hill. (And never forget that he was George Lucas' first choice to direct “Return of the Jedi.”) For a long time, it seemed like “Maps to the Stars” was going to be another doomed Cronenberg movie. It sat at the top of his IMDb page for years, never getting made. And then, in 2014, the film suddenly rolled into production. As of right now, it is David Cronenberg's most recent movie.

Set in the Los Angeles film industry, “Maps to the Stars” follows several separate characters living and working around Hollywood. Washed-up, burned-out actress Havana Segrand is desperate to star in a remake of “Stolen Waters,” a movie that starred her late mother. Her therapist is Stafford Weiss, doctor to the stars. His son is Benjie Weiss, teenage movie star of raunchy sex comedies, who is trying to rebuild his career following a stint in rehab. Entering into all of their lives is Agatha, a mysterious girl from Florida who is covered in burn scars, who gets a job as Havana's assistant.

“Maps to the Stars” was written by novelist/screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who seems to specialize in either far out sci-fi, like “Wild Palms” or “White Dwarf,” or dark satires of Hollywood excess, like “Scenes from a Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.” This film obviously belongs to the latter category. “Maps to the Stars” brutally targets Hollywood narcissism. Nearly every character in the film is a self-obsessed, morally bankrupt monster who is only concerned with their own fame. Some of Wagner's points are obvious, like the scenes of drug abuse and wild sex we've seen in plenty of other movies about Californian excess. The movie is even highly crude at time, such as a scene where a constipated Havana sits on a commode, farting up a storm.

So the film's satire is rarely funny or especially incisive. “Maps to the Stars” works better as a dark melodrama about how the past is never really done with us. Agatha is a rejected figure from the Weiss' past, coming back to haunt them and muck up their lives. Benji's mistakes as a rowdy teen hellraiser hangs over his head, growing more out of control and unhinged throughout the film. This, combined with the stress caused by Agatha's return, causes Benjiie's mother to suffer a mental breakdown. Havana is haunted the most by her past, of a mother who may have sexually abused her or whose status she simply can't live up to. In Hollywood, the past is hard to escape.

Some of the characters are rather literally haunted by their past. The most obviously Cronenbergian aspect of “Maps to the Stars” are the ghosts that appear to the characters. Havana is repeatedly visited by a spectre of her dead mother, who goads and mocks her for lying. Benjii also sees ghosts. He's haunted by a sickly, young fan he visited near the film's beginning. Presumably, we are not meant to assume these are literal ghosts. Instead, they are manifestations of the film's themes and hallucinations of damaged minds. Once again, Cronenberg brings the internal outside by depicting the world through the eyes of madness.

Wagner's script also shows a few weirdly specific obsessions. The first of which is incest. Most of the major characters in “Maps to the Stars” are involved in one incestuous relationship or another. Havana claims her mother sexually abused her, though her mom's ghost claims otherwise. Eventually, we learn that Agatha has an oddly romantic fixation on Benjie, her younger brother. Her burns are the result of a bizarre “marriage” ritual she tried to fulfill with him. Later, we learn that their parents are secretly brother and sister as well, a fact they were seemingly unaware of when they fell in love. What exactly the film is getting at with the incest vibes is hard to say. Is Wagner simply extending the narcissism of Hollywood life to an even more extreme place? Surely, there's a bigger point to it than that?

Another reoccurring element in the film is fire. Agatha still wears the burn scars from her youthful flirtations, which she covers up with rather fetishistic black leather gloves. Havana's mother died in a fire. Benjie's mother eventually commits suicide by fire, in a sequence that features some truly dodgy CGI. The film's interest in flames seems to be a pun of sorts. Wagner's original script was entitled “Dead Stars.” Like literal stars and fire, Hollywood stars burn brightly before fading. You could also say it's a pun referring to Havana's status as a has-been, someone whose fame has burned out. Again, I'm not sure if there's a significance to this thematic element beyond that.

Seemingly to remind you that you're watching a David Cronenberg movie, “Maps to the Stars” also features the occasional bursts of the extreme and the grotesque. Aside from the incest fixation, there's some kinky sex in the film. Havana participates in a threesome, which Cronenberg graphically depicts. Later, she seduces Agatha's boyfriend in a vulgar fashion. The film also features some blood. An innocent dog is shot to death. Agatha menstruates on a couch. The climax is surprisingly, shockingly bloody. Despite Cronenberg fashioning some fleshy horrors out of the script, the characters' behavior remains the most grotesque aspect of the project.

For its flaws, “Maps to the Stars” at least has an interesting cast. Mia Wasikowska, the most talented of the wave of British waifs that invaded Hollywood a decade ago, stars as Agatha. Wasikowska is excellent at projecting a damaged edge that is both vulnerable and unnerving. You feel sorry for Agatha, with her strangled attempts to reach out to other people or when her fragile fantasy world starts to crumble apart. She's also unhinged, featuring a dangerously obsessive edge that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on. She doesn't have much chemistry with Robert Pattinson, reappearing from “Cosmopolis,” who is stuttery and insecure.

In the lead-up to “Maps to the Stars'” release, most of the press centered around Julianne Moore. Moore didn't have her Oscar yet and some pegged her performance here as a potential winner. (She would instead win for another melodramatic performance, the same year's “Still Alice.”) Moore is one of the great actresses of her generation but she comes awfully close to overdoing it as Havana Segrand. The character's nerves are completely frayed, torn between a monstrous ego and a child-like need to be loved. Moore pushes her abilities to their extremes to depict this frenzied mindset. She screams, groans, moans, cries, farts, stews and pouts. Moore manages to ground Havana's histrionics in just enough humanity to keep her from being a cartoon character. But it's a close call.

Perhaps more compelling as a depiction of a narcissistic star developing a human heart is Evan Bird as Benjie. Bird is introduced as a petty monster, being ignorant towards a fan and casting anti-Semitic and homophobic insults at his agent. He's a spoiled rich kid, hideously entitled. This is most apparent in the jealousy he feels over a young co-star. Yet Benjie is also growing, slowly coming to regret his actions and dislike the shallow friends around him. Bird is solid in the part, depicting an unlikable character without compromising his realism.

The supporting cast features a few familiar faces. John Cusack appears as Benjie and Agatha's father. Cusack is well cast as the voice of empty authority, pontificating about various causes but ultimately saying nothing of meaning. That emptiness also covers an ugly, violent side that comes out in occasional bursts. Appearing opposite Cusack is Olivia Williams, as the family's matriarch. Williams' performance begins as steely and detached in a very Cronenbergian fashion. This soon degrades into a hysterical side, as the character is torn apart by trauma. Also appearing, in a cameo as herself, is Carrie Fisher. It's easy to see why the project would appeal to Fisher, who was always frank and self-deprecating about Hollywood stardom, but I wish more of her humor rubbed off on the script.

David Cronenberg likes to describe all his movies as comedies. “Maps to the Stars,” however, was his first real attempt to create something like a regular comedy. The result is pretty much what you'd expect, as Cronenberg's satire is laced with disturbing psychosis and intense unpleasantness. Occasionally, it is an interesting film, when focusing on how the ghosts of the past manifests. However, the film is surprisingly broad and crass with its satire. When combined with a wide cast and an aimless story, it results in a film that dares the audience to hate it. There's certainly plenty of Cronenbergian aspects to the film but the project still seems like an odd fit for his style. [Grade: C+]

Last year, David Cronenberg's wife and editor, Carolyn, died. This news came among rumors that Cronenberg was considering retiring from making movies, simply due to the difficulty involved in raising funds for his weird projects. The factors certainly seem to be suggesting that we may not see another David Cronenberg movie any time soon. The director has sought out other avenues. He wrote a novel, "Consumed," which was being considered for a television adaptation. If we're going to get more projects from the director, it seems like TV or the written word might be a likelier place to look for them.

Revisiting Cronenberg's films has been a rewarding but challenging prospect. It should come as no surprise that I most prefer his earlier work, while still admitting that even his later films are interesting. If "Maps to the Stars" ends up being his last movie, that will be disappointing. Even moreso for we long time fans that have often hoped the director would return to the horror genre. (By the way, Cronenberg's son, Brandon, has also become a director and his only film thus far is very much in keeping with his dad's classic themes. You know, if you're really hungry for something that taste like vintage Cronenberg.)

Either way, it was certainly a trip. Thank you for reading. Film Thoughts will be taking a short break next but I'll be back with new stuff soon enough.

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