Hollywood Babylon: Maps to the Stars

02/25/2015 9:31 AM |
photo courtesy of Focus World

Maps to the Stars
Directed by David Cronenberg
Opens February 27

A rigorously sleazy Hollywood ghost story, David Cronenberg’s latest feature is his first to be entirely shot on American soil. Maybe Cronenberg felt he needed to feel the ground beneath his feet for his portrayal of Hollywood as everlasting site of perpetual desecration—from the cash-in remake that Aging Actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) wants to star in as an homage to her career/mother, to the Greek-grade mythology and Jacobean bloodshed of the Weiss family (vile child star Benjie, manipulative estranged sister Agatha, dad the celebrity therapist, and stage mom), to the bodies treated as punching bags or enjoyed for vindictive sexual pleasures. We access Hollywood, in other words, through the poison-pen hyperbole of novelist Bruce Wagner (Dead Stars) and a Canadian auteur channeling spirits through new flesh.

The scatologically candid, kind of whiny Havana is angling for a new role, pulling every favor and sleeve she can to get back in the mix, and her stars cross with the Weisses when she takes on Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, in long black protective gloves like a dark parody of elegance) as a personal assistant. Agatha in turn is pathologically working her way back to her parents and Benjie (now shooting a new film with an upstaging sidekick); she’s returned from some form of recovery center for severe mental disturbances, not to mention burns from arson. Robert Pattinson—maybe a role or two late for this to have quite the same effect as his isolation-chamber turn in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis—plays a limo driver and aspiring actor-screenwriter who is another connection between Havana and Agatha (and is very good at playing the bystander amused by the self-absorbed).

Maps to the Stars has not garnered a broad critical following since its premiere at Cannes last spring, apparently leaving longtime cynics about Hollywood’s Babylon unimpressed. It’s true that the race to depict the entertainment capital’s diseased soul began long ago, and coincidentally many movies tapping into its demonic mystique came from directors working from an outsider status in one form or another: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, Robert Altman’s The Player, all the way back to Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare and beyond. Cronenberg’s vision of the comeback as haunted revenge tragedy may not be entirely novel, but, as with Cosmopolis, he sustains a queasy mood that slowly permeates the vulnerable physicality of his characters, whilst an undercurrent of dread builds. Ringing out over the proceedings is a clutch of devotional lines, recited and heard repeatedly, an emo prayer before dying.

The helpless tragic momentum and black-mass obscurity of Cronenberg and Wagner’s mythology carry the film through to its promised end, studded with some serviceably twisted barbs. The vaguely dated timelessness of Cronenberg’s sleek look and feel (Twitter plot device notwithstanding) suits that schema, much as it did with Cosmopolis and eXistenZ. And far from being a satirical funhouse mirror to Hollywood’s own funhouse mirror, the filmmaker ends not with horror at destruction, but very nearly a sense of atavistic wonder.