Monday, May 11, 2015

Catching Up: Maps to the Stars

On paper, a film like Maps to the Stars could be assumed to be another in a long line of Hollywood-produced self-satires. The miscellaneous pieces sound like a series of grotesques, twisted archetypes of tabloid figures we recognize, love, and revile.  Works like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, and Day of the Locust seem to whisper their influence from the gutters of each shot, and we watch as a young woman, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), arrives via bus to the city of angels.  At first, she's just another small town girl rolling up to the dream factory; a social climber, a bit of a stalker, a mysterious presence.  She wears long black gloves in all kinds of weather, and because this is a David Cronenberg film, we begin to get the sense of some other kind of instability.  This is not a film where the young starlet dethrones an aging queen.  This is something else entirely.

What that is, though, lurks just below the surface for much of the film. To use a simile appropriate to Cronenberg's oeuvre, watching Maps to the Stars is a bit like watching a sexy car crash.  Characters collide, scrape at one another, burn in ways that are unsettling, fascinating, and which ultimately leave a sort of mess of twisted wreckage.  We watch terrible people doing terrible things to one another until the credits roll, and while we couldn't look away, we don't know what it is that we just watched. If it's a satire, it's perhaps not one solely on Hollywood, but one that mercilessly pulls at the flesh of some unclear deeper social problem.  What is being bred in our culture of celebrity? What is this film unearthing? What haunts Hollywood, and what does Agatha's arrival bring to the fore?

Agatha's arrival is one that raises the dead.  This is the closest, perhaps, that we've gotten to true Cronenbergian "body horror" in any number of films.  Maps roots itself in skin and superficiality, in appearances and what lurks directly under them. There's a discomfort that overwhelms the atmosphere of the film and permeates the nasty caricatures Agatha eventually interacts with.  Julianne Moore is the standout here as Havana, a ruthless, desperate actress struggling to maintain her fame mid-career. She's wicked and vulnerable, despicable in the things she says and does even as she's pathetic. She visits a shamanistic guru (John Cusack) who delivers a type of massage therapy dependent, it would seem, on his presence.  His 13-year old son Benjie (Evan Bird) is on the brink of imploding his burgeoning career: he's been in and out of rehab, he sends another child actor to the hospital, and he mirrors Havana's paranoia in that he desperately seems to want to relish the pain of others in cases where it benefits his own success.
All of this makes for a mess worth exploring, and each individual thread in Maps offers a combination of character study and eviscerating satire.  What those threads add up to, though, is phenomenally unclear.  Perhaps this is the point. The film is a walking tour of horrors, the ghosts and nightmares that haunt the surface escapism of an industry.  It's a nasty piece of work, but one that unfortunately doesn't quite seem to know what it wants the audience to understand or to take away.  Still, it's fascinating to observe, and often as bizarrely, atonally comedic as it is nihilistic and sad.

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