Over the decades, there have been as many films depicting the rise of fall of Hollywood dreamers and schemers as there are stars in the night sky. David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, is an effective addition to the canon with its caustically satirical tale of intersecting lives, the professional and personal cost of aging, the morality forgone to progress another rung on the ladder of recognition, and the sacrifice of soul and dignity as some wilfully lower themselves into a morass of unwholesome compromises. It wouldn’t be an authentically spiced up Tinseltown satire without a slew of mentally unhinged individuals added to the mix either. Wagner’s themes, then, are simplified, generalised ones but potent too.
When we first encounter her, the star of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is inexorably fading but – spurred on by the kind of motivation that could fill an opportunistic psychiatrist’s next text for the masses – she’d love nothing more than to portray her own dead mother in an upcoming biopic. As well as being haunted by a young version of her deceased mother, Havana has a pathological fear of her younger rivals, the ghosts of which are exorcised by spiritual guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Stafford himself doesn’t exactly have a bed of roses to fall back on domestically, with an unhinged, fretful wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), and a vile, famous actor son Benjie (Evan Bird). Much of Christina’s stress stems from worry that their daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), recently let out of an institution, will return to their lives with some kind of twisted retribution in mind. Meanwhile Agatha – via new Twitter friend Carrie Fisher – has secured a job as Havana’s new assistant, whilst simultaneously finding time to win over limo driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and filmmaker.
Wagner’s creations, naturally, are a ghastly, unsympathetic bunch – narcissistic, ego-bound, morally vacuous, mentally unstable monsters whose behaviour and motivations serve as satirical exemplifications of the kind of at-all-costs, survivalist mind-set historically wrought by a disturbing subservience to fame and excess. No one escapes the wrath – from the major participants, trying to stay ahead of the game – often clinging to or enraptured by new methodologies, trends, and plastic surgery – to the smallest bit players selling their bodies and spirits in the filthy margins as they await the faintest sliver of opportunity to come their way.
Wagner’s screenplay has consistency issues but the strength of some key performances goes a long way to eliciting those pleasurable shudders of incomprehension at the depths of depravity on show here. Moore, surely now one of the finest actresses of her generation, gives yet another remarkable turn as the heinous Havana: lost, haunted, deluded and vindictive, she’s a classic fading star, clutching at straws to hold her ground in an industry attempting to sweep her under the carpet.
Wasikowska as her unstable, physically and mentally wounded new assistant, carries with her a whiff of dangerous potential, whilst Bird as the repulsive young star somehow makes Benjie semi-sympathetic with a performance beyond his years. The rest of cast, including Pattinson and Cusack are solid. The only sub-par work comes from Williams as the jittery Christina; severe overacting means her character’s anxiety is never tempered and mostly feels ludicrously overwrought. Maps to the Stars (2014) takes aim at some very familiar dysfunctional characters and mostly hits its intended targets. Certainly, it’s far from top-line Cronenberg, though it perhaps feels like a return to form – what wouldn’t? – after the ill-conceived disaster of Cosmopolis (2012).