To be a fan of David Cronenberg is to place a premium on impenetrability. Even the directors more mainstream narratives have placed emphasis squarely on theme over, and often at the expense of, narrative cohesion. Put simply Cronenberg’s movies often don’t seem to make sense and if they do it certainly isn’t according to the standardised rule book most other features draw from.
After a decade of making arguably the most streamlined movies of his career, Cronenberg follows up the capitalist headtrip Cosmopolis with Maps to the Stars, an ensemble piece set amidst the offscreen ventures of high society Hollywood elites; movie stars (aging and young), celebrity therapists, agents and executives. All are portrayed with a smarmy sneer and a viscious veneer. A pastiche of the most self-elating edifice of the Hills, Maps to the Stars may capitalise too closely on reality to be accurately related as satire. A commentary on the bastardisation of souls and the inbreeding of a cult of celebrity, it’s a dark view from a cynical eye. Or at least it might be. As mentioned, this feature follows the Cronenbergian pattern of theme over function and as a result is largely difficult to make any goddamn sense of. It’s not especially funny but envelops the eccentricity of hard parody. It’s not disturbing but holds no bars when pushing the limits of dark content. Although rarely comprehensible from scene to scene Maps to the Stars is always engaging and uses that attention to broach some incredibly off-kilter and taboo topics. In one sense it’s a wonder this film even got made. In another it’s a miracle that bona fide stars such as Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson (a Cronenberg alumni) and Julianna Moore opted to involve themselves.
Painted with such broad strokes, Maps to the Stars ultimately feels at once too vague and too distinctly realised. There’s no doubt that an exhaustible amount of reading into each scene will yield satisfying conclusions but little meaning stands out at first blush. Still, if the ‘story’ bites off more than it can chew the stars pick up the slack with commanding performances. Moore, Olivia Williams and John Cusack stand out as the key talents while the realtively inexperienced Evan Bird (playing a teen sensation movie star) fits perfectly into later scenes but struggles to stand with more esteemed actors during earlier proceedings.
With enough tweaking Maps to the Stars could certainly prove more approachable but with scrutinisation of such dark and awkward subject matter, approachable was never really much of an option. If nothing else Cronenberg’s latest is at least vividly interesting, especially for anyone with a deep interest or knowledge of Hollywoodland.
As unsettling as it is disjointed, as awkwardly humourless as it is wholly satirical, Maps to the Stars navigates the space between complete failure and ultimate marvel with a tenacity practically designed to divide opinions.
Maps to the Stars is out now in limited release.