Cannes Film Review: ‘Maps to the Stars’

Maps to the Stars Cannes 2014

David Cronenberg paints Hollywood as a black hole in this toxic showbiz satire.

At a certain point in their careers, nearly all aspiring actors in Hollywood are “waiters”: They wait tables, they wait for callbacks, they wait for that moment when they become famous enough that America knows them on a first-name basis, a la Arnold or Miley. Onetime wannabe Bruce Wagner did his time in that waiting zone, writing the script for “Maps to the Stars” while working as a limousine driver for the Beverly Hills Hotel. By the time his cynical satire finally made it to the big screen nearly two decades later — in the hands of never-boring director David Cronenberg, no less — its time had passed, the intended toxicity diluted by the fact nearly everyone involved was now “in.”

Somehow, it’s more interesting to watch dreamers struggling to play stars (check out Pia Zadora in “The Lonely Lady” for a real Tinseltown takedown) than it is for Oscar nominees to parody the desperate, which is pretty much what Julianne Moore is doing in a fearless performance far more gonzo than the out-of-touch satire that contains it. Like Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” before it, the film opens in France the day of its Cannes Film Festival premiere and will likely fare better there than in the States, where eOne is also releasing.

Surprisingly, the Canadian helmer has waited until this project to shoot in Los Angeles (or the U.S. at all, for that matter), and though the film benefits from such iconic sights as the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign and palm trees aplenty, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the city. Wagner’s insiders talk B.O. grosses and backend points, name-drop celebrities and do their best acting when pretending to like the idiot on the other end of any conversation, but they do so in slow-motion. There’s too much air in the room. After whiplash satires such as “In the Loop” and “Extras,” where half the jokes blaze by on first viewing, “Maps to the Stars” fails to reflect the pace at which the town operates.

Unlike Wagner’s sprawlingly ambitious “Wild Palms” (a 1993 miniseries that found his sensibility better paired with that of director Oliver Stone), “Maps” struggles to mix its various genres: Part showbiz sendup, part ghost story, part dysfunctional-family drama, the movie instead comes across as so much jaded mumbo-jumbo. In addition to its various pseudo-astrological connotations, the pic’s play-on-words title promises tantalizing access to the rich-and-famous playpens charted on Hollywood star maps. But the two ultra-modern homes where most of the action takes place feel as cold and far removed as a Toronto soundstage.

If Hollywood can claim — as MGM’s publicity department once boasted — “more stars than there are in heaven,” then the tight cluster depicted here form a relatively minor constellation. Havana Segrand (Moore) descends from Hollywood royalty, the scion of classic actress Clarice Taggart, who died in a fire, yet who still turns up now and then in ghostly form (Sarah Gadon) to derail Havana’s progress. Lately, the anxious C-lister has been fixated on landing the lead role in an indie remake of her mom’s best-loved picture.

But Havana isn’t the only one reciting that film’s famous monologue. Teenage burn victim Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) has just returned to L.A. from Jupiter, Fla., and she just might be a reincarnated version of Taggart— or, as it turns out, the schizophrenic product of an extremely incestuous showbiz family. Agatha’s younger brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), is enjoying his position as Hollywood’s most sought-after 13-year-old, managed by his taskmaster stage mother (Olivia Williams) and doted on by his self-help guru dad, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), though it can’t be long before Benjie’s walking the red carpet with a paper bag over his head.

The connections between all these characters are relatively clear from the outset, which spares us the satisfaction of waiting to discover how they fit together. Of the main characters, only limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, at the wheel rather than in the backseat after “Cosmopolis”) feels like an outsider, though it might have been wise to filter this unwieldy satire through his eyes — or those of someone not yet corrupted by association with the industry.

As it is, “Maps” spreads itself too thin, lavishing the majority of its attention on Moore’s high-risk performance. The actress seems game to push the limits, partnering with a director who never plays it safe, and yet Wagner’s script is content to go after easy targets: child actors, Scientology, revolving-door rehab programs, New Age-y pseudo-spiritualism. With all due respect to the fine work they do, acting is a line of work that tends to attract broken people: those who thrive under false identities, forever seeking public reinforcement.

In Havana, we see those insecurities writ large. But even at her most daring, Moore seems to be on a different wavelength from her director. She delivers her best scene on the toilet, for crying out loud, but Cronenberg plays it cool and detached, as always. He and d.p. Peter Suschitzky frame every scene in virtually the same way: elegantly disengaged from the lunacy.

“Maps” is the most overtly comedic screenplay Cronenberg has ever directed, but he hasn’t tailored his lensing or editing style to fit. The laughs come anyway, although some of Wagner’s funniest moments are left to languish, including an astoundingly inappropriate scene in which Havana celebrates the tragedy that forces a rival actress to resign from the role she’d coveted. If anything, Cronenberg has introduced a level of uncertainty as to whether it’s even appropriate to laugh when, say, Dr. Weiss starts punching his daughter in the stomach or Benjie strangles his young Ron Howard-like co-star — and the mayhem only escalates from there.

It’s not as if Cronenberg is pulling any of his punches. He just doesn’t manage to land very many of them, despite such provocations as a three-way sex scene and a badly rendered poolside barbecue. The film even has the nerve to call out real celebrities on their shortcomings, though Carrie Fisher is the only one to make a cameo.

It all feels too old — or “menopausal,” as the hip kids put it in the film. Moore is incredible, but her character’s frustrations would be more effective coming from a younger star, while the always-wooden Wasikowska ought to stop playing 18-year-olds already. But casting isn’t nearly as big a problem as the feeling that most of Wagner’s criticisms were hatched in the early ’90s, in a pre-smartphone era, before the Internet got nasty and back when the line “Harvey’s Harvey” would have packed a lot more punch.

Cannes Film Review: 'Maps to the Stars'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2014. Running time: 112 MIN.

Production

(Canada-Germany) An eOne Films release of an Entertainment One presentation in association with Prospero Pictures and SBS Prods. of a Starmaps Prods./SBS Prods./Integral Film production, produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Media Development Corp./the Harold Greenberg Fund, in co-production with Axone Invenst, with the participation of Canal Plus/OCS. (International sales: Entertainment One, Toronto.) Produced by Michel Merkt, Martin Katz, Said Ben Said. Co-producers, Alfred Hurmer, Walter Gasparovic.

Crew

Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay, Bruce Wagner. Camera (color), Peter Suschitzky; editor, Ronald Sanders; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Carol Spier; art director, Elinor Galbraith; set designer, Itsuko Kurono; set decorator, Peter Nicolakakos; costume designer, Denise Cronenberg; sound (Dolby Digital), Nicolas Cantin; supervising sound editors, Michael O'Farrell, Wayne Griffin; re-recording mixers, Orest Sushko, Christian Cooke; visual effects supervisor, Jon Campfens; visual effects producer, Pete Denomme; visual effects, Switch VFX; stunt coordinator, Jamie Jones; assistant director, Walter Gasparovic.

With

Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, Niamh Wilson, Dawn Greenhalgh, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson. (English dialogue)

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  1. Wonderful Wendy says:

    An extremely twisted but creative film, with wonderful acting. I loved it. The reviewer didn’t seem to grasp what he was watching, and was stumped in general by the proceedings. I can see why Cronenberg has had his fill with dumbed-down critics, but I guess they reflect the society at large.

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  3. Katherine says:

    I was enthralled with this film. I found the ghosts more LA than the palm trees.

  4. Rick Cohen says:

    The film was highly entertaining, though not without it’s faults – it is an unusual mixture of tones and genres but I found it quite fascinating to watch, and the acting was superb throughout, from Moore and Wasikwoska on down, including the smallest parts. Moore was extremely entertaining but I found myself
    more drawn in by the Agatha and Benji characters, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska and Evan Bird. I did not see this film as being primarily about actors, or even primarily a satire. “Maps” is really a creative marriage between Bruce Wagner and David Cronenberg, both of their sensibilities are entwined. This review strikes me as quite sloppy, and as if the reviewer was personally offended.

    • Ian says:

      Sloppy and shallow. Not sure why this fellow is reviewing a David Cronenberg film, I could see him tweeting comments for Perez Hilton or doing coverage from the Red Carpet. The part about Cronenberg introducing a level of uncertainty about what was appropriate for laughter was priceless, what an insightful critique. I guess I’ll have to go back to all of Cronenberg’s movies and see if what’s appropriate isn’t made totally clear.

  5. julesneuman says:

    “Maps” is a cliched satire of Hollywood. It reminded me of Gilliam’s “Zero Theorem” from 2014. It felt cranky, though Cronenberg didn’t write this movie (and it shows). It felt like a Todd Solondz film, but without the uniquely wholesome way Solondz is able to present his morbid, pitch dark comedy. This film is decidedly Cronenberg, but it’s a mismatch of style and tone. Moore is cool and over the top, but the character is overly grotesque. It’s heavy handed. There’s apparently some diehard Mia Wasikowska fans there, but for what it’s worth, she isn’t phenomenal or anything. Evan Bird isn’t any good either. The whole film revolved around Moore’s performance, which is odd because it is more about the crumbling family dynamic. Moore’s character’s tie in works, but it isn’t necessary except to bask in the acting. I was disappointed, but it’s nice to see a Cronenberg film again.

  6. Jim Warren says:

    I am one of the great unwashed movie public, and I was wholly entertained, disturbed, amused, horrified, and when the movie ended thought to myself: WOW…now THAT was a movie.

    But what do I know? I also thought STOKER was great. Correction: IS GREAT.

  7. Veronica says:

    I don’t think we saw the same film. Obviously Dr. Weiss punching his daughter in the stomach was not satirical, and if anyone saw it as appropriate for laughs they would have to be emotionally dense. Does everything have to be spelled-out and underlined in order to be grasped? I thought both Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska delivered brilliant performances, contrasting hot and cool, hysterical and contained, scary and touching – it worked toward building the overall tension. I was happy to see Julianne receive the Oscar, though I preferred her performance in “Maps”, or in earlier films such as “Boogie Nights”. Mia Wasikowska continues to amaze with her talent for inhabiting a character, her emotional depth, like Julianne she takes many risks and is fearless, she’s done so much quality work, and at such a young age.

  8. Julianne Moore’s performance is simply terrific. Stating that she is too old for the part and possibly miscast is a very rude statement, an oddity, and a blatant nonsense, from a narrative, psychological and even iconic point of view.

  9. ConMan says:

    Wow. Not only is Mr. Debruge completely off his nut here (Wasikowska is “wooden”??), this so-called review also contains spoilers in the third-to-last paragraph.

    That’s the sign of a low-level critic (and I use the term loosely), to pan a disliked movie by revealing plot points that in turn risk ruining the movie for readers. Here, it also makes Debruge sound like a spoiled child.

  10. Webster says:

    “The always wooden Wasikowska”? Oh, my lord, we’re suppose to take anything this guy says seriously. Talk about superficial, he sounds like some teenage ComicCon fan. Well, I guess there probably are music critics who are tone deaf so why not film critics who lack perceptiveness.

    • exile103 says:

      Agreed. Anyone who makes such a comment about such a talented young actress like her needs to lose their reviewing privileges.

      • Scott W. says:

        Heaven forbid someone truly gifted should take incredible risks and support and participate in creative films, but he probably fits in nicely with the overall superficiality of film criticism and journalism as a whole. I just saw the movie and I feel it truly went over this guy’s head. The screenplay, what’s actually being portrayed, is important and actually very timely, much more than just Hollywood, the acting is superb, both in-your-face and subtle. The movie is funny but it’s also very sad.

  11. Ojai says:

    The author of this review left their objectivity in their desk drawer when they wrote this. “Always wooden Mia” — in what alternative universe?

    Cronenberg skewers the Hollywood you live and work in, no wonder you didn’t like it. Hit a little to close to home, did it?

    • Adam C. says:

      Yep, absolutely clueless and not really perceptive at all. Wasikowska’s an amazing young actress. She has a strong, captivating presence and real depth.

    • Webster says:

      I just read this guys review of “Clouds of Sils Maria”” – in it he calls Kristin Stewart “the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation.” So, there you have it. Nothing against K.S., she gets way too much flak IMO, but Wasikowska was originally going to do that part in “Clouds” and instead did “Maps”. In his review of “Clouds” he says that the film has a positive view of actors in contrast to “Maps” having a negative one. So, this guy seems to be part of the Kristin Stewart/Robert Pattinson post-Twilight wars, he’s setting up some kind of competition between K.S. and Mia W. He’s using the “wooden” insult, which you always see hurled at Kristen, against Mia, who already has an incredible body of serious work that makes his remarks look ridiculous, at least to anyone with awareness. This is something one shouldn’t expect from a mature critic. Unless Debarge is sixteen-years-old, we should expect much more. This weird kind of competition is something that younger actresses have to face more than any one else – it’s like high school all over again.

  12. Karl L says:

    Mia Wasikowska is the best film actress under 30 now. If she’s wooden to you, we have very different views on what great acting is.

    • Webster says:

      More and more people are starting to get hip to the low level of many critics – they’re starting to bite back as they realize a good many of them (like this one) are about as aware as the typical poster on IMDB. There use to be really informed criticism, people who knew something about filmmaking and acting, at least enough to have some credibility, to make us believe they knew what they were talking about. Not so much now.

  13. AA says:

    Dear Variety, where do you get your Production/Crew info? The Set Decorator in Toronto was Peter Nicolakakos, and in LA, Sandy Lindstedt – NOT Itsuko Kurono who was the Set DESIGNER in Toronto. Art Directors were Elinor Galbraith in Toronto and Edward Bonutto in Los Angeles.

  14. Joshua f says:

    “With all due respect to the fine work they do, acting is a line of work that tends to attract broken people: those who thrive under false identities, forever seeking public reinforcement.”

    To take the screenwriter to task for not presenting a particularly new point of view, and apparently falling prey to cliche according, it is a rather bold step for the to throw out such a sweeping, small minded, and cliche generalization about actors. I would posit that a good number of actors are not any more broken than any other typically screwed up working American. And perhaps they are less so since they at least have an outlet for expression that allows them to exorcise their emotions in a healthy and creative way rather than eating them on the drive home from the factory every day.

    The review of the film is one thing, and it’s fair game. But to take such a broad swipe at actors en masse in the same article in which you praise Moore for her gusto, seems odd. Is she broken? If so, I hope most American women are broken like her because she seems delightful on screen and off.

    • sammyglick says:

      Looks like the reviewer hit a nerve with one of those emotionally broken actors desperate to become famous.

      • Joshua f says:

        Wrong, Glick. Looks like I am far more in the majority in finding the reviewer to be questionable in many regards. It would not have been a surprise to see such an easy swipe from a gossip rag reviewer. But Variety is an industry standard publication. A respectable film reviewer who appreciates the art could’ve easily still written a negative review in a well thought out (and researched ( see above comments about credit mistakes) way without resorting to base level generalizations that add zero to the content.

  15. FSN Global 's Rick Fox says:

    Reblogged this on Global News Now.

  16. therealeverton says:

    “always-wooden Wasikowska”

    I assume you mean in this film yes?

    • sammyglick says:

      No, he meant as in ALWAYS wooden in ALL of her performances including this turkey.

      • RPG says:

        Anyone who thinks Mia Wasikowska is “wooden” in her performances doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about how acting works in the first place. It’s not all JLaw histrionics.

        I also can’t help but wonder if the uninformed, hot-and-bothered writer of this piece is commenting under the equally caustic “sammyglick” as well.

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