Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg, screens this Saturday and Sunday at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Focus Features will release the film theatrically next year.
From its previous festival screenings, I’d heard David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars described as a “Hollywood satire,” which may explain some of the puzzled reactions to it. The movie is certainly set in Hollywood (some of it was shot in Cronenberg’s native Canada, but other exteriors feature Cronenberg’s first footage shot on US soil!), and it’s often very funny, but there’s a stilted, airless quality to the dialogue, particularly when it ventures into discussions of the movie business. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a surly child star with a few vague Bieber-isms (though really, he looks more like a slightly blinged-out Ben Savage), sounds particularly remote; it takes a while to fully understand that Cristina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford (John Cusack) are his parents, not just his handlers (maybe because they are principally his handlers). Bird speaks with practiced, arrhythmic vulgarity that I found strange until I realized his character is only thirteen years old. The screenplay, by Bruce Wagner, drops scattered references to current Hollywood, but Cronenberg stares at them like an alien. It’s a bunch of insider jokes made by a clear outsider.
It is, in other words, the perfect Hollywood comedy to play to a bunch of jaded New York critic types at Walter Reade; I can’t imagine it would get quite the same uproarious laughter in many other circumstances, and I mean that as a compliment, to someone (possibly the woman who couldn’t contain her guffaw at a line mentioning AIDS). Cronenberg and Wagner follow Benjie along with his estranged sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives in town boasting of a friendship with Carrie Fisher, which gets her a job with aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who’s desperate to play her dead mother’s old role in an upcoming remake. The movie makes it pointedly difficult to discern between delusion and fact; several statements that sound like the former turn out to be the latter, while characters that look real turn out to be visions. The lines between fantasy and reality blur in a walking-dead sort of way—it’s probably not a coincidence that two of its young stars have played vampires (Robert Pattinson turns up, though his role is less central that it appears at first). When Agatha wanders onto a movie set, one of the crew mistakes her real-life burns for makeup, admonishing her to finish the coloring job and get on set.
As the movie goes on, its deadpan sorta-jokes get sicker, bordering on gothic. Cronenberg, as ever, doesn’t pitch his material into high opera, instead shooting many conversations in near-metronomic alternating one-shots. Several scenes keep important elements just off-screen for as long as possible, and he uses that space to generate tension in what is, on the balance, a relatively talky and potentially momentum-free story. For much of the movie, I was on edge without completely understanding why. At risk of reducing it to its place in Cronenberg’s filmography, Maps to the Stars very much fits in with his other recent movies, all notably free of his trademark goop and squish: it combines the glassed-in limo weirdness of Cosmopolis with the therapy weirdness of A Dangerous Method (Cusack provides some of the latter as a smarmy acting/self-help guru). It’s hard to say whether future scholars will regard this burst of activity (three films in four years) as a trilogy of sorts, or just that time when Cronenberg got super into Robert Pattinson. But with the goop/squish of body horror washed away (mostly, anyway —all three movies certainly have their unnerving moments), it becomes more clear than ever what a wonderfully odd people-watcher he is.