Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A "Map" From David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is one of those directors whose work I fell in love with just when I was getting into cinema.  I committed myself to watching every new film he made, a promise that's been hard to keep over the past decade.  His last two features, "A Dangerous Mind" and "Cosmopolis," were not only misfires but didn't feel like Cronenberg's work.  Really, nothing has since Cornenberg largely stopped writing his own scripts in the late 90s (ironically, he did write "Cosmopolis").  His latest, however, "Maps to the Stars," suggests he's getting back to his roots. 
"Maps to the Stars" takes us back to the director's favorite subject matter: the freaks.  And where are there more examples of human freakishness than Hollywood?  The chief attractions here are Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a teen idol fresh out of rehab.  They are both horrible human beings whose behavior is enabled by their wealth and fame.  Benjie also gets plenty of bad influence from his parents Stafford (John Cusack), a prominent celebrity psychologist, and Cristina (Olivia Williams), Benjie's manager.  As Havana and Benjie journey toward their emotional nadirs, they keep seeing ghosts.  Havana is terrified by visions of her abusive dead mother Clarice (Sarah Gadon), a more successful actress who still has a cult following.  Benjie sees a young fan (Kiara Glasco) who recently died after he visited her in the hospital.  And then into their lives comes a young woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowsa), fresh off the bus from Florida, whose first act upon arrival is to employ a limo driver named Jerome (Robert Pattinson).
At first the movie is a satire of celebrity culture.  We watch Havana and Benjie and their handlers network and negotiate deals for new acting jobs.  The dialogue is full of namedropping, evasive language, and empty pleasantries.  We watch the handlers go to extraordinary lengths to placate and protect Havana and Benjie's egoes, and the worse they behave, the more they're catered to.  Everyone speaks in coded terms, and it gets exhausting trying to keep up with the onslaught of aggressive insincerity.  I was expecting the absurdity of the doublespeak and the depravity of the scummy stars to be the point of the movie - and it would have been a pretty decent one.  But then about halfway through, "Maps to the Stars" gradually becomes something stranger and weirder and more wonderfully Cronenbergian.
The key to the film is Agatha, given a wonderfully enigmatic air by Mia Wasikowska.  She slips into the part of enterprising Hollywood up-and-comer and uses all the same networking and namedropping tricks to position herself exactly where she wants to be.  And then she reveals that what she wants has nothing to do with Hollywood or celebrity.  She's the agent of far more primal, mysterious forces.  Unlike the denizens of Tinseltown, she has no regard for her reputation or fear of scandal.  She repeats old movie lines not as a mantra, but almost as words to a ritual.  Just as "Videodrome" was only peripherally about television and "eXistenxZ" was only peripherally about video games, "Maps to the Stars" starts out in show business and then goes off to explore dysfunctional families, the aftereffects of terrible tragedy, predestination, and, of course, body horror. 
Sadly, the movie gets to the juicy stuff fairly late, and only after the audience has been forced to endure many of Havana and Benjie's spoiled brat antics, which wear very thin.  Cronenberg's picture of Hollywood doesn't sit quite right either, or is perhaps a few years out of date.  Social media is ignored completely.  "Battlestar Galactica" is apparently still in production.  Perhaps the most egregious miss, however, is Benjie, whose bad boy behavior is not remotely as extreme as those of the actual young celebrities he was clearly modeled on.  Evan Bird's bland performance doesn't do Benjie any favors either.  Far from being troubled, or in recovery, he mostly just looks bored. 
Julianne Moore, fortunately, delivers a good turn as the narcissistic, fame-hungry Havana.  She walks a very fine line between hateable and pitiful, and is occasionally very, very funny.  Mia Wasikowska is quickly becoming indispensable to every film she appears in.  I liked Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, and Olivia Williams here too, though I wish they'd gotten more time and attention.  A lot of their best moments happen on the periphery, in little throwaway bits here and there. 
What made "Maps the Stars" for me, though was the mood and the tone, the dreamy dissonances and the haunting evocations of the unknown.  There are horrible things that happen, but this isn't a horror film or a thriller.  It's something more meditative and measured.  Like Agatha, there's a quiet, unshakeable certainty in its attitude as we watch each star-crossed lover careen toward their doom.  And it's all weird as hell.  That's the David Cronenberg I love.
There's plenty in the movie that I don't like, but I recommend it nonetheless.

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