David Cronenberg has spent the past fifteen or so years milling around with Hollywood credibility and narrowly avoiding losing himself to the ether. He’s too fundamentally personal and fascinating a filmmaker to ever make an out and out boring film, but he sometimes seems like he’s trying. Maps to the Stars probably ought to be more of the same (the anti-Hollywood Hollywood tale is not exactly fertile ground anymore), but Cronenberg has selected Maps to the Stars for letting his hair down. Rather than a burst of Old Hollywood prestige with all the i’s dotted and the t’s dashed in squared-off fashion, he’s given us a burst of New Hollywood trash, a conglomerate of messy fluff and corrosive melancholy that flops around when it should push and throttles forward when it should relax. It’s not sensible, nor is it entirely reasonable. It’s the sort of film you’d expect from a New Hollywood affiliate losing themselves to their personal inhibitions at the expense of rhyme or reason, or an unformed young gun with ambition and passion to spare (neither of whom are Cronenberg). Either way, it’s not the work of a classically refined filmmaker. In fact, it’s much better.
It’s an unclassifiable little beast of a film, and as malformed and sloppy as it is from beginning to end, as lost in its own vaguely existential milieu and aloof qualities, and as much as it both conforms to and pokes its thumb out at Freudian flesh and Jungian fetish, it’s a gas. It flouts expectation and cuts when we don’t expect it, spends far too long with certain shots and rushes through others, has fun with trauma and shakes its finger at much safer fare. Even more, it’s a ghoulish Frankenstein’s monster of equal parts Cronenberg’s low-brow high-art past and his middling high-brow present, and I dare say if it isn’t his best film, the melding of the two may make it his most interesting.
There is at once a superfluity of narrative in Maps to the Stars and a dearth of propulsion. Taking cues from Cronenberg’s previous Cosmopolis, Stars is a relentlessly talky affair, positioned half-way between hard-boiled noir and soft-lit soap opera. Loosely, our stars are a handful of Hollywood hopefuls whose daily concerns vary from the superficial (ensuring no one besmirches their good name) to those that gnaw out the soul (anxiety, traumatic stress, depression, and all other assortments of human loss and longing). The characters are at their strongest when the surface and the core curdle together into a congealed mass of contorted human flesh (ironically Cronenberg-like, at that, and a new spin on his festishization of the thin membrane separating the internal and the external).
The main group are a murderers’ row of twisted types: abusive TV self-help personality father (John Cusack), ambitious manager mother (Olivia Williams), snot-nosed child-star son (Evan Bird), estranged pyromaniac daughter (Mia Wasikowska) to daddy dearest’s current favorite client, an aging starlet played by Julianne Moore with severe internal machinations. Others abound as well, most notably limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson) as our would-be detached third party, our diegetic map to the stars to match Cronenberg’s camera, and fittingly the most mundane character who lacks the death-drive, and the lifeblood, of those he ushers around LA.
Around these characters Cronenberg’s camera dances a dance most foul, never quite establishing a forward drive but instead twisting and turning laterally, jumping backwards thematically, and establishing diagonal gestures in just about every direction it can find. At some level, his film is precisely about the way Cronenberg can establish mental and physical space between the characters and then slowly but surely reduce it until they breathe down each others’ throats. Its progression of scenes doesn’t feel fully formed, but this gives it a certain alert, unfinished quality of passion missing in so many other tales of Hollywood’s inner demons like it. At a very elemental level, the flow of scene to scene feels under-edited, like a rough draft more than a final pass, but this is precisely what affords the whole project the twitchy vibe that separates it from so much else released today.
Again, it is a dialogue-heavy film, but the dialogue doesn’t so much advance theme or plot as mill around in the two and prismatically lash out every which way. The dialogue also isn’t very tepid or matter-of-fact (for those of you who feared a dialogue focus would lead to something everyday from Cronenberg). It’s fairly fully conscious of its stage-bound origins, just as Cosmopolis unfolded like a minimalist Beckett play with as much dialogue dumped into the blank spaces as humanly possible. Only here, and this is one of the major reasons why Maps to the Stars is the more well-nourished and effective of the two, the artificial dialogue serves a purpose: to explicitly connect Hollywood types to Hollywood language, implying that people who live and die by public fiction would act in their everyday private lives like movie characters. The dialogue becomes a chief means by which Cronenberg explicates on the public private divide for these characters, and the way Hollywood success comes part and parcel with a certain loss of the self outside of this “Hollywood identity”. It’s not quite Sunset Blvd or All About Eve levels of bile-spewing, but there’s a fairly thick dusting – just enough to cloud the senses – of pointed Hollywood waxworks to explore what happens when Cronenberg’s favorite topic, human flesh, turns to porcelain. And when it’s no longer filled with blood, but sewage.
Maps to the Stars may also prove something of a startlingly exciting new direction for Cronenberg, a director who also circled around this sort of aimless malaise and let it pop through his exploding heads only just occasionally enough to allow his films a certain druggy demeanor. Certainly, among his more recent offerings, this is the polar opposite of the tight, blunt trauma of A History of Violence and the intentionally stodgy A Dangerous Method. There are superficial comparisons to Cosmopolis to be made, insofar as both are experimental and are more content to just wander than to move with any sort of purpose. But one look at the way that film rigidly committed to one character and this one flops back and forth and around every which way ends the comparison in its womb. Cosmopolis was a low-key coast; Maps to the Stars is a jagged-edge-and-barbed-wire cocktail that goes down like nails, always calling attention to itself and always breaking down everything it’s set up.
At some level, it seems more like a companion piece to the more subversive “everyone is connected, everyone is not really connected” thought-pieces of the 1990s like Short Cuts and Magnolia (just look at the poster for confirmation that Anderson was a prime influence). For all its difficulties, the way it cuts between characters at oddly determined intervals and judicious, drug-induced juxtapositions of character and theme is a masterclass. It sets up disparate characters, purports to bring them together in specific, finicky ways, and ends up attaching them through wholly separate, spur-of-the-moment formations that implicitly critique the entire idea of this sort of ensemble film. In doing so, it comments on the very basic means by which films are edited together to suggest meaning out of individual scenes.
Put more simply: the film manages to pursue exactly the through-line we expect from the beginning whilst denying and actively contradicting this resolution at the same time, achieving its goals and flaunting them at the same time. It’s admittedly a touch chilly and predetermined, and there’s a distinct sense that we’re never going to be able to catch the film off-guard like with Anderson’s best works. It’s a little more Kubrickian in this sense, and with it the double-edged sword holds true: too much ice and you lose the fire that sets your film alight, but not enough and you burn. Cronenberg knows the balance, and he displays the confidence of an old pro walking a tightrope he’s walked a dozen times before.
But he still knows how to dangle off the side for a minute or two just for show, taunting us with the threat of dropping over the edge. This is where Cronenberg is supposed to thrive, and when some of our elder statesmen like Werner Herzog and even Terrence Malick now seem more content to take a bite out of the low-dangling fruit of Hollywood cinema, it’s refreshing to see the old head-exploder explore a different kind of chill down the spine, to tackle more real-world horrors. And to do it without the inhibitions of the milquetoast Hollywood Oscarbait he’s been flaunting for the better part a couple decades now. Perhaps refreshed and re-popularized as a critical darling after losing his way in the 90s, he’s ready to test the waters of confrontational cinema again. His first steps ain’t perfect, but these are dark times for the mean streets of cinema, and we need someone to guide us.