There isn’t a scene or performance here that makes the movie worth watching. I loathe writing this, as much as I despise stating that this is the first movie from director David Cronenberg I truly disliked. He’s responsible for grotesque (albeit thoughtful, layered and challenging) films before, but never one with a screenplay this pitiful. The reason “Map to the Stars” doesn’t work, first and foremost, is because of the writer, Bruce Wagner, who has provided his director with an empty container of snake oil.
Julianne Moore plays a self destructive, wildly narcissistic Hollywood actress, John Cusack plays a vile self help guru, Mia Wasikowska is a star struck newcomer to Tinseltown and Robert Pattinson plays limo driver and aspiring actor. All four have done great work elsewhere and were likely duped into taking the project because Cronenberg was at the helm.
The way the cinematography seems to lean in close to the actors and Wasikowska’s character bears a visible scar are the only Cronenberg trademarks on hand. Actually, this plays like warmed over Wagner, because that’s literally what it is. Lots of “Maps to the Stars” feels like leftovers from his wildly hyped, hit-and-miss 1993 mini-series, “Wild Palms,” which starred James Belushi, Dana Delaney, Kim Cattrell, Angie Dickinson and Robert Loggia. It’s multi-episode run was produced by Oliver Stone and, of the four different directors, Kathryn Bigelow and Keith Gordon were among them. “Wild Palms” was ambitious, highly stylized and mostly incoherent, though I enjoyed how far reaching it was for network television at the time. Coming not long after “Twin Peaks,” it tried to push the envelope but managed to frustrate more than entertain.
“Wild Palms” featured subplots involving a corrupt religious guru, thinly veiled jabs at Scientology, a monster of a child actor, incestuous relationships, constant name-dropping and pop culture references, all in a futuristic Hollywood setting. Oddly enough, while “Map to the Stars” is mercifully shorter and has one director at the helm instead of four, it flat out doesn’t work.
The dialogue has all the appeal of a Hollywood gossip monger chewing with their mouth open. In attempting to be shocking and satirical, the language comes across as desperate. So do the actions of the characters, who are seen-it-before stardom hopefuls with the loyalties of a jackal. Moore was much better and less overwrought playing a similarly unhinged character in “Magnolia.” Cusack is a smart actor and a seemingly ideal collaborator for Cronenberg but the opportunity misses them both. Wasikowska once again wanders through a movie without bringing anything memorable to the table and Pattinson, so brilliant in Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” is stuck in a role with no character arch.
By the time we get to the inevitable violence at the end, we’ve already been bludgeoned to death by the relentlessly ugly story that the gore doesn’t register. For a filmmaker so famously masterful at crafting carnage, the use of totally unconvincing fire CGI in one scene is puzzling.
“Birdman” had unlikable characters and self-aggrandizing actors at its center but at least showcased performances and filmmaking that evoked the joy of performance. Here, everyone looks miserable trying to outdo one another in how off-putting they can be. Evan Bird is especially monotone and forced as a foul mouthed child actor, a role Ben Savage played far better in “Wild Palms.”
Hollywood may be a moral vat of toxic waste, but the annual output of great films only neuters the stuck up naysayers who claim everything coming from Tinseltown is “crap.” In this case, a would-be expose of Hollywood’s most despicable creatures has hailed from Canada, from one of its finest filmmakers. This time, Cronenberg’s obsession with the flesh can’t pierce the skin, nor dig beneath the slimy surface.