I don’t watch many David Cronenberg movies. This isn’t because I don’t think he’s good. On the contrary, it’s been obvious for many years that he is a brilliant director with one of the most original and disturbing imaginations in world cinema. It’s just that I don’t really do much horror, and films about homicidal women who grow penises in their armpits or feed sadomasochistic videotapes into their stomachs just aren’t this little Englishman’s particular brew, thank you very much. And just because I once read The Naked Lunch doesn’t mean that I want to see it on screen, however well-done.
Crash was as far out as I was prepared to go with Cronenberg, and that was pretty damn far considering the film’s utterly repellent subject matter. I also quite liked A History of Violence, which isn’t really a typical Cronenberg film at all. Nevertheless this weekend I was tempted to see Maps to the Stars, and I have to say I was completely knocked out by it.
Shot mostly in LA, it’s the first film that Cronenberg has made in the United States, and I can imagine that there are a lot of people in Beverley Hills who wish he’d stayed up north of the border. Because not since Sunset Boulevard and Day of the Locusts has Hollywood been subjected to such a pitilessly forensic skewering.
The plot is really a kind of crazed melodrama, which references older Hollywood psychodramas like Mommie Dearest and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Its essential focus is the unexpected reappearance of schizophrenic pyromaniac Agatha Weiss in the lives of an utterly dysfunctional Hollywood dynasty which has previously rejected her – for very good reasons, as it turns out.
To suggest that the Weiss family is somewhat obnoxious falls considerably short of the mark. Stafford Weiss the father is a quack therapist who has grown rich offering a combination of psychobabble and pseudo-cathartic experiences to mega-rich actors. His wife is an uptight control freak, obsessed with squeezing as much money as possible from her ghastly child-star son Benji, an arrogant child prodigy who makes Justin Bieber seem like Desmond Tutu.
The travails of the Weiss family overlap with various subplots involving lots of ghostly visitations that may or may not be hallucinations, and fading star Havana Segrand’s attempt to make a comeback by playing the mother who may or may not have sexually abused her as a child. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that it doesn’t end well.
But the plot is the least important aspect of the film, which viciously and often hilariously excoriates Hollywood as a vapid tinseltown, populated by greedy, phony, self-obsessed egomaniacs, obsessed with eternal youth and eternal fame, and pretentious wannabes incapable of engaging in any relationships with anyone that don’t lead to money or self-advancement.
Many of the film’s characters are borderline psychotics, and the film strongly suggests that their pathologies are the result of the corrupting influence of the Dream Factory itself and the gilded Olympian bubble that Bruce Willis once alluded to when he talked about ‘people up here’ not paying much attention to reviews.
Cronenberg has said ‘Hollywood is a world that is seductive and repellent at the same time, and it is the combination of the two that makes it so potent.’ Maps to the Stars brilliantly captures this duality, and takes absolutely no prisoners in sending up the world it depicts, through a whipsmart and witty script from novelist Bruce Wagner with so many deft hrowaway lines that you need to see it again to remember them all.
The cast clearly relish the opportunities the script has given them, with a cameo appearance from Carrie Fisher and outstanding performances from everyone in it. John Cusack is magnificently creepy as fake therapist Stafford Weiss. Julianne Moore is typically compelling as the decaying Gloria Swanson-like Havana, and Robert Pattison of Twilight proves that there is life beyond vampires.
Cronenberg’s chilly, baleful directorial gaze is perfectly suited to this material, effortlessly infusing its glitzy 90210 world of limousines, swimming pools, nightclubs and hyper-modern houses with a persistent atmosphere of menace and dread.
Despite its bleakness, I left the cinema feeling exhilarated at Cronenberg’s triumphant achievement. Because our crazed celebrity-obsessed world of God-like stars, Hello and OK magazine that deserves this kind of treatment, and in these dark times we should be grateful that there are still artists out there who are willing and able to hold the culture up to critical scrutiny, and to have done so with such wit, verve and style.