Ever notice with certain indie films, you hear a lot about them when they're playing at film festivals, with everyone talking about how amazing they are, then they suddenly vanish from the cultural radar? And you're like "How can the brand-new Cronenberg movie with Julianne Moore only be playing at 5pm and 10pm?" And when you finally see them, you realize why? This is one of those films--it looked like a sure-fire hit with its "scathing satire of Hollywood" and its "update of All About Eve," then you realize that these were just things--inaccurate things, by the way--journalists said at the time to try to drum up some interest in what turns out to be a difficult film that is hard to love and all but impossible to understand. And then it vanishes from the radar and ends up with an apologetic February release. As it turns out, this is definitely the Cronenberg of Cosmopolis and not of Dead Ringers, but, if you're ready to see something crazy that definitely will not leave you with one cohesive statement [or a warm feeling deep inside], but is two hours of crazy, violent, scathing brilliance--here it is!
After some surprisingly soft n' pretty credits, we see Mia Wasikowska as Agatha arriving in Hollywood on a bus [in a manner recalling the cliche of the young ingenue arriving in Hollywood] and ending up in the limo of Robert Pattinson as Jerome. We then meet obnoxious 13yo star Benjie going to meet a dying girl in a hospital. He thinks she has AIDS, but she actually has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a mistake for which he calls his adult assistant an "jew faggot." We then meet John Cusack giving a massage to Julianne Moore as he guides her through reliving the incestuous sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother. He is Stafford Weiss, healing guru and therapist to the stars, and she is Havana Segrand, actress lapsing into obscurity. Her mother was an old Hollywood star who died in a fire, and Havana hopes to land the part her mother played in a remake of her most famous film. Before you know it, Havana is reduced to trembling in her bathroom before the ghost of her mother, and Benjie is visited by the ghost of the girl in the hospital. Welcome to Maps to the Stars!
SPOILERS > > >
Agatha becomes the personal assistant of Havana. Agatha has a burn on her face and hands [which she covers with elbow-length black gloves]. Soon enough, we learn that Agatha is the daughter of Stafford and Cristina [a wonderfully destroyed-by-anxiety Olivia Williams], and sister to Benjie. She learned that Stafford and Cristina are actually siblings, gave her brother an overdose and tried to burn the house down. She came back to town to "make amends," but her parents don't want to see her, and certainly don't want her seeing Benjie, who [at 13] is just out of rehab, and his role in an idiotic Home Alone-esque film is in danger. Havana loses the role played by her mother, but ends up getting it, as the son of the woman who did get it suddenly dies. Agatha comes to see her mother, but is discovered by Stafford and badly beaten. After she's gone it is discovered that she stole her mother's wedding ring. Eventually Agatha goes off her meds and... well, bad things happen to bad people.
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So those are some of the circumstances and plot events, but that by no means is the total content of the film. The overwhelming impression is the portrait of Hollywood as a place of paralyzing anxiety and vicious cruelty, masquerading as a beautiful place of luxury and good feeling. Havana is a priceless character, a bundle of anxieties barely holding it together, a broken woman with serious psychological wounds who needs to pretend that everything is wonderful and carefree when in public and certainly before the cameras. Her various speeches about the stresses she is under are both hilarious and frightening, and of course Moore brings it all to life in a wonderful way. Stafford is a guru of inner peace who has earned only hate from his son and delivers a savage beating to his daughter at the drop of a dime. His wife, Benjie's mother, is in a constant paralysis of anxiety with a cigarette at her lips, and cries wounded whimpers whenever her son suffers a slight setback. Benjie himself is as arrogant a cock as a 13-year-old star can be, and already in and out of rehab, with a grown-ups contempt for life and the people in it, alongside the normal periodic terror and vulnerability of a boy his age. In short, the entire thing makes up a picture of Hollywood as a horrible place of madness and constant anxiety.
While the whole thing doesn't necessary cohere immediately as a whole, there are a number of little scenes and details that stick vividly in the mind. One is Benjie at a party where young teen starlets are calling every woman over 30 "menopausal." Or Havana having to go through a sexual three-way with a director and another woman in order to land a part. He gets on the phone in the middle of sex, and Havana is trying to listen in, while the other woman is pawing at Havana in a "hot" way in order to please the director. Or the way Pattinson is blithely distant from everyone, but pleasant enough, and has some vague intention of making it is a screenwriter or whatever. It's all terribly interesting and frustratingly opaque at the same time.
When you leave, there's a lot to talk about in that there are certain obvious parallels between characters, mainly Havana and her mother and Agatha and her mother, but also with Stafford and others. It hints at a larger, hidden meaning behind the film--i.e. that one story is being spread out amongst numerous characters... or something. For instance, there was incest in Havana's family and there's incest in Agatha's family, and there were disastrous fires in both, and more eerie parallels... but one viewing wasn't enough for me to figure them out. The image of the opening and closing credits is of celestial stars being connected... literally, an image that tells us "connect the dots" and I believe the phrase "connect the dots" is used in the film. Then the title, Maps to the Stars, implies that there is some map or plan behind all this. I'm a little keen to see it again, so if I come up with anything, I'll let you know, but if you go see it... look out for this kind of stuff. Actually, you won't be able to miss it, but it's also naggingly difficult to put together.
Still, riveting, fascinating, great performances, and I was very happy to have seen it [and happy that Cronenberg is pumping out these brilliant if completely inexplicable films], but... I wish I could tell you the meaning behind it all! Just go see it, and toss it back into that old brain pan of yours.
I think so for sure.