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.
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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.