Saturday, February 28, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

(Canada/Germany - 2014; US release 2015)

Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Bruce Wagner. Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Evan Bird, Carrie Fisher, Kiara Glasco, Dawn Greenhalgh, Jonathan Watton, Niamh Wilson, Jennifer Gibson, Justin Kelly, Jayne Heitmeyer, Joe Pingue. (R, 112 mins)

As we've observed with the ongoing tragedy of Dario Argento, seeing a great and influential filmmaker skidding in his elder statesman years is never a pleasant sight, and David Cronenberg's MAPS TO THE STARS is, if nothing else, a slight step up from 2012's career-worst COSMOPOLIS. Other than one character having some significant body scarring that recalls his CRASH (1997), there's very little to here to suggest that the 71-year-old Cronenberg really has his heart in this one. It's written by Bruce Wagner, best known for the 1993 Oliver Stone-produced ABC miniseries WILD PALMS, but also a novelist (his so-called "cell phone trilogy" of I'm Losing YouI'll Let You Go and Still Holding), whose chief focus has always been the skewering of cliched L.A. and Hollywood types. Wagner also wrote Paul Bartel's 1989 satire SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS and in many ways, MAPS TO THE STARS plays like a grim spinoff of that film, one that was lambasted when it was released and only remembered today by the cult of Bartel (DEATH RACE 2000, EATING RAOUL) and the most devoted Jacqueline Bisset stalkers. MAPS TO THE STARS is yet another tiresome entry in the "Hollywood taking misanthropic shots at itself" subgenre, one that's brilliant when it's done right (SUNSET BOULEVARD, S.O.B., THE PLAYER, TROPIC THUNDER) and insufferable when it's not (almost everything else). Cronenberg has been trying to get MAPS TO THE STARS made for the last decade, and Wagner's script dates back further than that (in fact, when the project stalled three years ago and Cronenberg moved forward with COSMOPOLIS, Wagner turned his script into the 2012 novel Dead Stars), only with some added mentioning of Twitter and the name-dropping of some current stars to spruce it up. Considering how long MAPS TO THE STARS was gestating in development hell, it's alarming how utterly disconnected from it Cronenberg seems. It's not a David Cronenberg film--it's a Bruce Wagner script that Cronenberg happens to be directing. Unlike guys like Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and Robert Altman, the Canadian Cronenberg's never been a Hollywood insider (indeed, MAPS is his first film to features scenes shot in the US), so MAPS' potshots at industry types seem especially cheap and hollow. And by this point, Wagner's scripts are all the same, stuffed with loathsome, decadent L.A. asswipes drowning in ennui and self-absorption who do shitty things and screw over anyone to get ahead. Wagner's covered these subjects ad nauseum in past screenplays and novels and at 60 years old, he's starting to sound less like a guy with keenly satirical insights into the Hollywood machine and more like a bitter curmudgeon who's having a hissy fit because he never quite made it to the A-list.

MAPS TO THE STARS is one of those "everyone is connected" ensemble pieces: washed-up, pill-popping actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) desperately wants a part in a remake of an old movie that starred her late mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire 30 years ago and frequently appears in ghost form to taunt Havana about, among other things, the state of her career, the smell of her vagina ("That hole smells worse than I do!"), and their incestuous past as mother-daughter lovers; Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a teenage movie star who combines the worst parts of Justin Bieber and Joffrey Baratheon, is just out of rehab and shooting the next entry in his BAD BABYSITTER franchise; his enabling mother Christina (Olivia Williams), and his father Stafford (John Cusack), a famous New Age TV therapist who counts Havana as a patient and is prone to declarations during massage sessions that go something like "I'm going to press on a personal history point--memories are stored in the thighs"; Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), an odd, burn-scarred young woman who arrives from Florida boasting of a Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (as herself), who gets her a job as Havana's personal assistant, or "chore whore"; and Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and would-be screenwriter who occasionally turns up as part of Agatha's character arc until the film forgets about him once more.

Wagner's script is so sloppily-constructed that things that should be big reveals and surprises land with a complete thud. Is it supposed to be a surprise that Agatha is Benjie's older sister and the disowned daughter of the Weisses? Because by mentioning her last name as soon as we see her, we've put that together. Wagner tries to demonstrate some complexity in the various parallels that manifest between characters involving ghosts, fire, and incest, with a particularly creepy focus on the latter, and he only succeeds in repetitious overkill, especially if you're one of the four people who can recall that ghosts reminding characters of their past misdeeds was also a major part of SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS. Elsewhere, Cronenberg props things up with the unfortunate crutch of shock value in ways that do nothing to further the story, whether it's bodily discharges with Agatha leaving a menstrual blood stain on Havana's $12K couch or a constipated Havana struggling to defecate and only loudly passing gas. Yes, David Cronenberg has been reduced to fart jokes and drags Moore down with him.

The best thing that can be said about MAPS TO THE STARS is that the actors commit. Moore overdoes it, but the character requires such, and one of the few satirical bits that actually has some scathing bite to it is when she loses the role in the movie to younger rival Azita (Jayne Heitmeyer), known for "letting producers put their dick in her ass and take a piss," only to win it back when Azita's six-year-old son Micah drowns in a swimming pool, prompting her to have a breakdown and drop out of the film. The role then goes to Havana, who reacts by joyously dancing through the house and outside by the pool, shouting Micah's name and singing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." Moore won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her scenery-chewing work and prior to her eventual Oscar win for STILL ALICE, was generating some Academy buzz for MAPS until its US release got pushed to 2015 (it was out in Europe last summer), preceded by one of the most blatantly misleading trailers in quite some time, edited in a way to make it look like Wasikowska is the psycho in a SINGLE WHITE FEMALE-type thriller. Bird does a solid job at playing a spoiled and thoroughly despicable turd, and even Cusack, taking a break from his new career in D-grade action movies, has some good moments, though he's first seen vaping--apparently his go-to prop as DRIVE HARD and RECLAIM introduced him the exact same way. Some good performances aside (though Pattinson is wasted in a rather nothing role), MAPS TO THE STARS is all bark and no bite, filled with tired depictions of debauchery, transgression, and generally bad behavior, plus an act of self-immolation that features the worst CGI fire I've ever seen. Cronenberg needn't prove anything to anyone at this point, but he's still smarter than a de facto follow-up to a forgotten 25-year-old movie that almost nobody liked. One leaves MAPS TO THE STARS wishing its poster art's tag line "Eventually stars burn out" didn't seem so oddly prophetic for its director. And as far as Wagner is concerned, his only significant contribution to cinema remains sharing a story credit with Wes Craven on 1987's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS.

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