I really love David Cronenberg’s films. (I’ve seen every feature he’s made except for Cosmopolis, which is on my list; just haven’t gotten a chance to see it.) I think, at his best, that no one makes films quite like he does. With his marriage of body horror, unsettling themes, go-for-broke premises, and a willingness to push the boundaries of good taste and sanity, his works of horror and suspense are unlike anything else out there. But in recent years, Cronenberg has…well, mellowed may not be the right word, but it’s close. Starting with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg has started to try to marry his sensibilities with drama and dark satire, and the results have been mixed, to put it mildly. But rarely has “mixed” been a more appropriate word than it is with Maps to the Stars, in which Cronenberg tries to make his own take on The Player and creates something incredibly odd, off-kilter, and very, very uneven. And yet, there’s no denying that it’s a Cronenberg film – it’s just that it’s a remarkably strange one for him, and not entirely successful.
In fact, let’s go a step farther, and admit that Maps to the Stars is pretty much a mess, on many, many levels. A Hollywood satire in the vein of The Player, Maps follows a group of various Hollywood luminaries – an actress on the downslope of her career, a young newcomer hoping to find a way into the industry, a limousine driver who’s also writing scripts, a young star and his parents – as they cross paths and go about their lives. And, as you’d expect from a Hollywood satire, we see them at their worst, whether it’s taking advantage of a child’s death to get a role, using their own traumas as a way to become more famous, or abusing people for their own shortcomings. It’s pretty pitch black material, and Cronenberg walks a fascinating line, letting the characters be far worse and more horrible than Altman ever attempted in The Player, and yet also letting them be more human, revelling in their guilt, shame, and broken consciences.
It’s an interesting approach to the film, and at times, Maps to the Stars works as a way of exploring the damaged characters who make up its world. This is a world where abuse is passed down through generations, where guilt embodies itself in spectral visions, where fire cleanses and purifies. And all of that is interesting material…when it works.
But the problem is, by and large, it doesn’t work. Maps is far, far too complicated for its own good, throwing in too many characters, muddling their motivations, and generally lacking enough of a throughline for any one plot thread to have a real impact. Is this a ghost story about an actress coming to terms with the abuse she suffered as a child? Is it the story of how adults corrupt their children? Is it about the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood, or the way no one in the film cares about anything other than themselves? Any of those are interesting ideas, and a lot of them could work well together, but Cronenberg seems to insist almost perversely on keeping the film from holding a focus long enough to make a single clear point.
Maps to the Stars is still well-shot, as you’d expect, and the cast is solid – no surprise, with the names you’ve got. But it’s a frustrating mess, no matter how many interesting scenes or haunting moments it manages to deliver, and you’ll finish the whole thing wondering what on earth any of it meant. And that’s something Cronenberg usually doesn’t suffer from, which makes this a pretty big letdown.