What’s going on with David Cronenberg? The past few years have been quite a stumble from his glorious decade that saw the release of 2002’s Spider, 2005’s A History of Violence, and 2007’s Eastern Promise. Admittedly, he started this era strong with 2011’s dusty A Dangerous Method, but his polarizing 2012 adaptation of Don DeLilo’s Manhattan novel, Cosmopolis, was a step back in both execution and panache. Whatever celluloid renaissance the Canadian veteran filmmaker once experienced seems to be cracking, and his latest production, the Hollywood-based and American-lensed Maps to the Stars, adds a nasty fissure.
The story follows the incorrigible Weiss family, a disastrous nuclear household torn at the seams by fame, fortune, and grizzly skeletons in the closet. They’re the perfect Cronenberg construct: Stafford (John Cusack) is a small-screen therapist for Hollywood trash; Cristina (Olivia Williams) manages their dickhead child actor/son (Evan Bird); and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is their distraught and physically scarred daughter, who’s just stepped back into tinseltown. All of their struggles interplay with a struggling actress named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and a starving actor/limo driver (Robert Pattinson).
We’ve seen this story before. Maybe not this exact story, but the idea of a despondent, sinful, and incestuous Hollywood family is something that’s not only haunted the silver screen in years past, but our own culture. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner knows this. As Cronenberg told The Verve, the topic of Hollywood is “a lifelong obsession” for the guy, and that passion bleeds through in his attention to detail — it’s just not very groundbreaking. The problem is that the city’s reputation of being soul-sucking and debaucherous has always preceded its name. So, the shock and awe of what’s happening on-screen comes across as more or less muted. Or even non-existent.
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“Eventually stars burn out” is how the poster’s tagline reads, and that’s essentially the crux of the film. From Billy Wilder’s iconic Sunset Blvd. to David Lynch’s sweeping Mulholland Drive, the tragically short lifespan of a celebrity has been well documented on film. Cronenberg and Wagner don’t add much with Maps, though they do try to spin that tired theme with a poetic style that borders on a Greco-American play. Throughout the film, the handful of characters randomly digress on a number of spiritual soliloquies, and while it’s undoubtedly the most original facet to this story, it’s also tonally off. Why are they talking like this? It would have been best to play it straightforward.
Equally distracting is how ghosts spook the principal characters. Of course, they’re not really ghosts — “You know, if your parents have died, you still hear them, you can still sort of see them, you dream about them,” Cronenberg suggests — but manifestations of guilt and nagging secrets. The most appropriate of the ghouls is Havana’s dead mother, who mocks the star for attempting to stage a comeback by taking her legendary role in a buzzy Hollywood remake. It’s a unique layer to a film desperate for ingenuity, but Cronenberg sets these pieces up like a Blumhouse production, complete with stilted acting that’s far too pandering to take seriously.
It’s just not a very tight film. Sure, there are parallels to study within its threadlike storytelling, but each of their revelations feel misguided and undeserved. That’s not to say the secrets the Weiss family hold aren’t confounding and horrific — they are, they most certainly are — but their impact elicits an exhausting sigh rather than a startled gasp, which likely isn’t what Cronenberg or Wagner had in mind. Once more, the problem lies in its execution, specifically with its admirable-yet-unconvincing ensemble. Cusack struggles with his pocket of lines, Williams kind of just stands there, and Pattinson mumbles through his scenes like a confused idiot.
That leaves the intriguing Wasikowska, the humorously glib Bird, and the ever-fantastic Moore. Even the Academy Award winner is limited by her predictable and inefficient storyline, though goddammit does she try. Her scenes with Wasikowska are about the only saving grace to this film, and the way she pushes and pulls on her surrounding cast is exemplary of her own talents and how she can always rise above the material (ahem, Still Alice). And while Wasikowska plays with mystery well and Bird eventually scrounges up some much-needed pathos, they’re both straddled with innocuous dialogue and plot points.
To its credit, Maps to the Stars oozes with style and intrigue, two qualities that Cronenberg seems to always possess, even amidst his least favorable works. There’s definitely a good film in there, but it’s tangled up in a gluttony of misguided ideas and strangled performances. In a way, the film shares a lot with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, another sprawling, ambitious story thwarted by curious artistic direction and an erratic ensemble. Let’s just hope The Box isn’t waiting for Cronenberg next and perhaps a call to Viggo, instead?