Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg skewers Hollywood and Justin Bieber in his latest, starring John Cusack

Maps to the Stars


Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon, Olivia Williams, Niamh Wilson, Jayne Heitmeyer, Evan Bird. Written by Bruce Wagner.

Biting Hollywood-skewing satire meets David Cronenberg weirdness in the director’s Maps to the Stars, an occasionally vicious portrait of contemporary life in Beverly Hills that goes off on a few too many oddball tangents to succeed along the lines of a classic Hollywood satire like Robert Altman’s The Player.

Still, it’s a riveting watch, even as we slowly realize that things aren’t going to pay off as we might want them to by the end. The film’s strongest aspect is its relentless attack on a Justin Bieber-like child star and his strained family dynamics, which culminates in some of the film’s strongest scenes.

That Bieber figure is Benjie Weiss (played by Evan Bird) a self-entitled child star who thinks only of himself and may be going crazy – to match his parents. An early scene where he visits a dying girl in a hospital is brilliantly executed, and recalls similar incidents involving the pop star. Bird is perfectly cast as the venomous post-rehab teenager, and the film shines whenever he’s onscreen.

Which isn’t enough. While the Bieber-skewering Benjie Weiss is the most memorable aspect of Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg focuses on a number of other key players as he takes some more generic jabs at Hollywood living. 

Benjie’s mother is the controlling and obsessive Cristina (Olivia Williams), and his father is psychologist and self-help guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a TV personality whose position seems ironic given his family’s issues. Those ‘issues’ include estranged daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who the family has shunned for years after she set fire to the family home, horribly burning herself and putting Benjie in danger. But years after the fire, Agatha has returned to their lives.

At the urging of Carrie Fisher, who she meets on Twitter, Agatha gets a job as the personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading actress whose career is on the skids. She’s desperately trying to land a gig in a film based on her own life story but losing out to the competition. Moore – who won the Palm D’or at Cannes for Best Actress – is terrific here, but the characterization is a little too on-the-nose; we’ve seen this kind of thing before.

And then there’s Robert Pattinson, who was so memorable in Cronenberg’s previous film, Cosmopolis, but has precious little to do here as a potential love interest for Agatha. His character could have been excised from the screenplay and the film wouldn’t have missed a beat.

Maps to the Stars was written by Brue Wagner, who once penned Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in the 1980s. One imagines his screenplay was once a more conventional Hollywood satire a la the former, until given the David Cronenberg treatment.

One of the strangest elements here is the literal appearance of ghosts; not one, but two characters are haunted by vividly-realized apparitions (Sarah Gadon appears as the spirit of Havana’s late mother). Of course, all these characters are hunted by past events, but the literal presentation can be jarring.

The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky – who has shot all of Cronenberg’s films dating back to Dead Ringers – is bland and lifeless, with the empty-canvas walls in those massive Beverly Hills estates resulting in an incredible amount of dead space on the screen. This is the intent, of course, but the result can frequently become oppressive.

While Cronenberg was skewing more mainstream-friendly with A History of Violence and Eastern PromisesCosmopolis and Maps to the Stars have gone in the other direction entirely. Maps doesn’t always work – the resolution, especially, leaves something to be desired – but when it hits the mark, it can be as vicious as satires get.

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