What adjectives spring to mind to best describe the work of David Cronenberg? I’d imagine some synonym of ‘disturbing’ would be first, and that ‘funny’ would not register. While the Canadian master’s moved out of his body horror comfort zone on numerous occasions, he’s rarely ventured into anything that could be remotely considered a ‘comedy’. Yet his latest, Maps to the Stars, surprises in its early sections at least by actually being quite amusing, in a darkly satirical way.
A scene in which a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) discusses his clients with young, new Hollywood arrival Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), along with TV promos made by psychologist to the stars Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack – escaping from the straight-to-VOD rut he’s been in lately) possess a biting wit. And then there’s the moment we’re introduced to Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) a troubled teen star and complete bastard of the highest order, as he’s visiting a young fan in hospital, only to become enraged at his manager for her having a less severe disease than he thought, it’s blackly comic excellence.
Cronenberg’s not just going to play this all for laughs though, as becomes apparent when the story takes some darker turns, which do result in occasional feelings of tonal disparity. Maps to the Stars tells the interconnecting stories of a number of LA characters, each disturbed in their own way, and features a small ensemble cast including Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon and at its centre; Julianne Moore as an aging Hollywood star seeking to remake an old film of her mother’s – a tragic star of the past.
As the multi-stranded story of Maps to the Stars progresses, we gradually learn how each one of these characters is linked to one-another, and it’s not pleasant. It would be unfair to go into details here but I was quite surprised in Cronenberg’s handling of some of these reveals; at one point he drops an absolute bombshell simply in a conversational line of dialogue that seemed so surprising I thought the character might be joking at first.
The acting here is almost uniformly excellent, Wasikowska, who’s really the protagonist, is proving herself to be a more daring performer with each passing year, but it’s Moore who’s the stand-out. Her role is one that in the wrong hands could have been completely awful, requiring a fearless, vanity-free actress to depict things you’d never expect to see an A-lister doing. Moore’s up to the task though, and is effective enough to come across as unattractive without applying any of the typical make-up/prosthetic jobs that Oscar-baiting roles go for. Actors are rarely rewarded for work in Cronenberg films (unfairly I might add), but she bagged the best actress prize in Cannes, though is now an Oscar contender for a different movie. The only real issue with the cast is Benjie’s age, I’d placed him at around 16/17 but a line of dialogue states he’s thirteen, which just seems a little too young to be believed.
The main credits don’t come until the end of Maps to the Stars, and I have to admit I was very curious about the writing one. It could be easy to see this as a caustic view of Hollywood from perennial outsider Cronenberg, who’d never filmed in the US before this, but strangely his voice just doesn’t seem to be there. It didn’t surprise me then to see that this is one of the few Cronenberg films in which he doesn’t have a writing credit at all, being written by novelist Bruce Wagner. There are only occasional touches that are recognisably Cronenberg’s and these tend to be the more obvious horror elements.
After the double disappointment of Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, Maps to the Stars is something of a return to form for David Cronenberg. It’s a difficult film, and one that it took me a while after seeing to fully form an opinion on, but one thing’s for sure; Cronenberg still knows how to shock an audience.