If you live in or around Hollywood, you’re likely to see open-top buses filled with tourists, taking a tour of your home like it’s Disneyland. I happen to live near a lot of the attractions on these tours — places that are pretty ordinary to me, but can still be sold as part of the Tinseltown mythos. The lookie-loos in these buses and vans want to see where the stars live — or, stranger still, used to live — because, as legend has it, such figures are larger than life, gods amongst men, living out their fabulous, unimaginable lives on a plane of existence we mere mortals can only dream of.
The truth is a far cry from that — and if you live here, you know it. But you’ll still see those buses full of people, their eyes glancing briefly at you, just in case you might be a celebrity, and then darting quickly away when they realize you’re just another person. Like animals in cages at a zoo, we don’t pay much mind to these tourists invading our natural habitat — which is not, in fact, our natural habitat, but an enclosure built up to vaguely resemble our former way of life. Our unnatural habitat. In Los Angeles, it’s a constant reminder that people are fascinated by our way of life here, even if that way of life loses its luster to those who actually live here. At some point, even glitz and glamor begin to look ordinary. I look at those tourists sometimes and try to remember what it’s like to be just thrilled by all this.
David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars is a lot like those “star tours,” except in addition to showing you gaudy homes, celeb hotspots, and a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous, it will also show you incest, prescription drug abuse, the ghosts of multiple children, self-immolation, and at least one dead pet.
Welcome to Hollywood, folks!
Maps To The Stars begins, as most cliche Hollywood stories do, with a young woman stepping off a bus in Los Angeles. But if you think you’ve seen this one before, think again. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) wears long black gloves to cover the burns on her arms. A less severe burn marks her face. Agatha requests a limo driven by Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who is — you guessed it! — an aspiring actor and screenwriter. Agatha, on the other hand, has not come to Los Angeles to make it as an actress. She’s come to make amends.
But first, she’s come to meet her Twitter buddy, Carrie Fisher (no, really, it’s Carrie Fisher), who helps her get a job as personal assistant (AKA “chore whore”) to an aging actress named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Havana is desperately, desperately, desperately attempting to procure a role in the remake of a film her mother, Hollywood legend Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), won a Golden Globe in. Clarice was later killed in a fire, which makes Havana’s meeting with burn victim Agatha feel predestined. And maybe it is! Around the time Agatha arrives in the City of Angels, Havana begins having visions of her dead mother — in the bath, in bed with her during a threesome — and let’s just say mommy isn’t playing nice. Havana is not the only celebrity who’s seeing things — child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) has visions of a recently deceased teen girl who was a major fan of his. (She’s not such a fan in the afterlife, though.)
Are these real ghosts? Or just figments of these warped celebrity imaginations? Maps To The Stars isn’t so interested in a plausible explanation, but seems to suggest that celebrity minds are already so fragile, and damaged, and used to lying to themselves, that adding visions of the dead on top of all that is hardly a stretch. Its vision of Los Angeles is of a bizarre, interconnected world where there are many coincidences but no accidents. Benjie’s father Stafford (John Cusack) is a loopy self-help guru who treats Havana for the sexual abuse she (supposedly) suffered as a young child (in sessions that come off more like child rape fantasies than therapy). Benjie and Havana also have the same manager, Genie (Dawn Greenhalgh), though Benjie’s career is really run by his steely mother Christina (Olivia Williams).
Despite constantly sunny skies, there’s a foreboding sense of doom hanging over these characters’ heads from the very beginning, as if all of these people were poisoned by prosperity long ago and are only now getting around to actually expiring from it. Benjie and Havana both grew up privileged, both began acting at a young age, and now are both insufferable narcissists. Benjie may still be a young teenager, but he’s also just 90 days out of rehab and is paranoid that his younger co-star (a mere moppet) is stealing scenes. Meanwhile, Havana pops just about every kind of pill there is and rejoices when a personal catastrophe strikes the younger actress who got the part she wanted. At her very lowest point, she lays bare her insecurity in a sickening seduction that has her asking Jerome if she has better skin than a burn victim. This is not the behavior of a happy person. Maps To The Stars is both a very funny satire of celebrity as well as a seriously fucked up tragedy. As in many of Cronenberg’s films, the real world feels “off” somehow — even for Los Angeles. It’s not quite as bizarre as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, though the two films not surprisingly have plenty in common. It’s also not technically set in a post-apocalyptic time like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, but it has a similar surreal quality that mixes nicely with the heightened reality of celebrity life. It is rather akin in tone to Cronenberg’s last film, Cosmopolis, which had Robert Pattinson riding around in the back of a limo instead of driving one. Cosmopolis, like Maps To The Stars, was about the gross and sometimes homicidal extremes that soulless rich people will sink to just to feel alive. (Sarah Gadon also returns from Cosmopolis, and after her recent appearance in Enemy, I’m starting to wonder if she has any interest in movies that take place in our actual reality.)
Maps To The Stars is the twisted nightmare version of sightseeing in Los Angeles, and like those star tours, it’s obsessed with the mythos of celebrity and ultimately quite critical of this city and this industry. David Cronenberg has been making movies for a long time, so it’s possible that he has an axe to grind with the kinds of people you find in this business, but it’s equally likely that he’s just having a laugh at our expense. Virtually every character in Maps To The Stars is ludicrously despicable, and that’s before some of them start killing people. We’re meant to laugh at the shallow words that come out of their mouths, we’re meant to pity them (but not sympathize). None of these characters seems too closely based on a real person, but Benjie is the right age to display a foul Bieber-like ‘tude that instantly renders him a teenage monster — though we also sense that he’s had little choice in the matter, due to a disturbed childhood and some seriously freaky parents. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that Julianne Moore, in her Golden Globe nominated performance, was playing an overgrown Lindsay Lohan — maybe just because she looks so much like Lindsay Lohan — although by the end, even Lilo would look at her and say, “What a raging bitch!” It’s a credit to Moore that the character comes off as sympathetic as she does, before she takes a turn for the truly vile. (I would wager that that turn takes place in a brilliant gross-out sequence set in the bathroom.)
By the end, so many gruesome things happen to these people that Maps To The Stars becomes impossible to take too seriously as a tragedy. We feel a little sorry for them, but mostly these people have brought it on themselves. Nearly everyone in this story is a vulgar freak; the ones that aren’t might not be merely because we haven’t gotten to know them well enough. It’s hard to imagine that Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner think they’re delivering an accurate representation of Los Angeles — it’s too extreme to take seriously — and yet it does play right into the stereotypical view of Hollywood so many people have. I’m a little uncomfortable with the way Maps To The Stars demonizes each and every corner of Los Angeles, without displaying a single corner worthy of redemption. I’m in on the joke, but will everybody else be? Or will this just serve as more fuel for the fire of L.A. haters? Personally, I happen to think Maps To The Stars is a satire of the way people think about Los Angeles than the city itself. There’s some truth in here, but it’s also a shallow, tourist’s point-of-view, one that scratches just barely below the surface and finds nothing but a void underneath. The movie’s title suggests a tour of Hollywood life, and the response is a movie that throws ugliness and depravity back in our faces.
You want to see celebrities? We’ll give you celebrities! Cronenberg seems to say. But then he won’t let us look away. We have to live in the grimy cannibalistic black hole these famous people do, and I’m not sure this is meant to reflect a real place so much as it is meant to mirror our fascination with gawking at the most shallow of celebrities. Stars would be nothing without their adoring fans, and that’s us. We’re their enablers. We’re the ones who allowed them to become such vicious monsters. Maps To The Stars just may be our punishment for that.