Blood relations tend to get very bloody indeed in David Cronenberg’s films. Few and far between are the family members who manage to extricate themselves from the ties that bind with all the severity of a stranglehold. Cronenberg’s latest, Maps to the Stars, doubles down on the dysfunction with its tragicomic take on the intersecting fortunes of two Tinseltown dynasties and the hidden histories of violence that continue to haunt them. Based on a script by novelist Bruce Wagner, whose I’m Losing You covered similar territory, the film marks another noteworthy aesthetic departure for Cronenberg after the stately elegance of A Dangerous Method and the hermetically sealed Cosmopolis. Maps to the Stars is a scabrous, etched-in-acid comedy that digs deeper into the perversions and pathologies undergirding the Dream Factory than anything since Mulholland Drive.
Maps to the Stars opens with a feisty piss take on the archetypal Hollywood fantasy of discovery and fame by tracing the itinerary of newly arrived hopefuls, hitting the highlights (Schwab’s Drugstore, the Walk of Fame) with one telling difference: The wannabe in question more or less conforms to the type of the bubbly blonde, only this bombshell is badly burned about the face and arms (hence those elbow-length leather gloves). Adding to the scene’s already considerable alienation effect, this naïf named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) promptly informs Jerome (Robert Pattinson), the limo driver she’s hired to ferry her across L.A.’s stygian basin, that she hails from Jupiter. “Jupiter, Florida,” she clarifies after a beat. Turns out Agatha’s the black sheep of the notorious Weiss family, hitherto institutionalized for a disastrous flirtation with pyromania.
The return of the Weiss’s prodigal daughter topples the first domino in an escalating daisy chain of calamities. Because Maps to the Stars is all about keeping it “in the family,” the repercussions are naturally felt closest to home, and none of the Weiss clan emerge unscathed. To its credit, the film adroitly toes a tonal tightrope throughout, effortlessly balancing the demands of disparate genre elements: There are dollops of industry satire, Chekhovian family drama, and, most surprisingly, elegiac ghost story in this heady (and exceedingly strange) brew. The cumulative effect is altogether unusual, though there are certain family resemblances: In some ways, Cronenberg’s film comes across like an incestuous cousin to Robert Altman’s The Player.
The actors, who seem to have been uniformly cast against type, are more than up to the challenge. Ranging about as far afield as possible from his bumptious Lloyd Dobler image, John Cusack as Weiss patriarch Stafford, a self-promoting self-help guru, oozes telegenic charm when hocking his bestselling guide to holistic healing (entitled, ironically enough, Secrets Kill) and dials up the ferocity when dealing with poor unwanted Agatha. Julianne Moore effervesces as Stafford’s star client, Havana Segrand, an aging diva with bubblehead mannerisms and a penchant for impromptu threesomes. And Olivia Williams, usually cast as the pallid object of affection, matches Cusack ounce for ominous ounce as mother/agent Cristina. Unfortunately for the family Weiss, when it comes to the maternal element in that hyphenate job description, Cristina makes Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like the mom from Ozzie and Harriet.
The unquiet dead aren’t the only specters haunting the Hollywood homeland in this film. For these fractured family units, incest seems the natural endgame of a merit system based exclusively on pernicious nepotism and inveterate ass-kissing. None of the characters prove immune to the global logic of this arrangement. In a scene that playfully nods to Pattinson’s backseat dalliances in Cosmopolis, even as it provides Maps to the Stars with one of its more affecting moments, Jerome betrays his bond with Agatha for a backdoor tryst with Havana, revealing this aspiring screenwriter to be nothing more than another garden variety starfucker. Then again, as he sheepishly confesses, “Everything’s research on some level.”
If the research that Cronenberg and Wagner engaged in for Maps to the Stars oftentimes appears more entomological than sociological, there’s nonetheless a plaintive chord of melancholy that plays throughout the film. Nowhere is this more evident than in the repeated invocations of Paul Éluard’s poem “Liberty,” a paean to freedom clandestinely published at the height of the Nazi occupation of France. Except that, in Maps to the Stars, it’s clear that the family is the occupying power, and that liberty (however phantasmagorical) can be attained at a cost only a desperate few would willingly pay.