And here we are again. It’s been a long time coming, for a film that I was certain would see a NYC area release, at some point during 2014. Now, “Maps to the Stars” did open at Cannes almost a year ago, where it garnered Julianne Moore the Best Actress Award from the festival. It also screened at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and the 2014 New York Film Festival last September. It even received a one week bow in Los Angeles, for the purpose of awards consideration this past December (that strategy enabled Ms. Moore to receive two Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globes, one for Musical or Comedy for “Maps”, as well as one for Drama for “Still Alice”–which is the one she won.). But Focus World decided to hold off on official “wide” release until February 27th of this year, where it landed in a limited amount of theaters, on the same day that it premiered on VOD. So, after careful consideration, I’m going to consider David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” an official 2015 feature, not unlike recognizing his “Spider” as a 2003 entry, when it followed a similar release structure in 2002-2003…sans the VOD. Got all that? So…was it worth the wait?
To a large degree, it was worth all the delays, even though I fully acquiesce that this is DC’s most uneven work in over a decade. When it hits…it’s often a bullseye. But there are definite misses too, including a somewhat curious John Cusack performance, and a non-too-convincing self-immolation scene towards picture’s end. It does feel like a David Cronenberg film, including a decent sized helping of body-horror. But the budget constraints peered through occasionally–which is more depressing than anything else. It’s become increasingly difficult (even for undisputed genius film directors like David Cronenberg and Terence Malick), for artistic and avant-garde movie artists to get their works financed and distributed. It’s all on us, and it’s our loss. David recently explained in an interview that he doesn’t have a current film in the works–so Chronicle-Phase Twenty may see an extensive delay. This weekend marks DC’s 72nd birthday, and methinks he still has plenty to offer. Let it be told that he published his first novel late last year (“Consumed”–and of course I’ve read it!), and it appears he’ll begin work on another. I hope “Maps” doesn’t turn out to be the swan song–but you never know.
Agatha (a strong Mia Wasikowska), arrives in Los Angeles via bus, and immediately meets limo driver, Jerome (Robert Pattinson, in a droll, deft rip-reversal, on his previous Cronenberg collaboration “Cosmopolis”). Soon Agatha is working as an assistant to aging movie-star, Havana Segrand (an absolutely marvelous, and fearless, Julianne Moore, in a role that tops her performance from her recent Oscar-winner, “Still Alice”), through a meeting set up by Agatha’s twitter friend, Carrie Fisher (played by none other–than Carrie Fisher…who is given one of the best lines of the screenplay). In an ironic(?) coincidence(?), both Agatha and the deceased mother of Havana(portrayed in film flashback, and ghostly hallucinations, by the luminous Sarah Gadon, appearing in her 3rd straight Cronenberg film) are former burn victims. And Havana is currently vying to star in a remake of a film that her mother headlined in decades earlier, before her tragic and untimely demise. Meanwhile, a young teenage child star named Benjie Weiss (a wise beyond years, Evan Bird–very effective) is making a comeback from a Drew Barrymore-like substance addiction, by appearing in a sequel to his most popular comedy hit. This while his mental-health guru father (a possibly miscast John Cusack), and his controlling, yet oddly sympathetic mother (a quite solid Olivia Williams), struggle to keep his lucrative career on track. And soon we learn that Benjie and Agatha share a disturbing and illuminating connection.
Much has been made about “Maps to the Stars” being the Canadian Mr. Cronenberg’s first official film to be shot partially in the United States (although a good deal was lensed in Toronto, portions were filmed in L.A.–especially involving landmark exterior locations), and it’s a welcome hybrid. The ghoulishness of modern-day Hollywood meshes extremely well with the oeuvre of “Dave Deprave”. This is a nasty motion picture, involving deaths of children, physical abuse, icy cold ambition, and the vacuous celebrity culture. It’s at once a biting satire, a hilarious black comedy, and a stinging familial drama. The director is right at home. And Julianne Moore, as Havana, is the standout of a mostly wondrous cast. She screams, she connives, she strips down, she partakes in a three-way, she relieves herself on the toilet–plus she’s seeing ghosts. But mainly she’s in pursuit of the comeback role that will resurrect her fading stardom. And she plans on getting it by any means necessary (if you’ve seen Ms. Moore skipping while she croons “Kiss Him Goodbye” in the trailer, I promise you you’ll be aghast as to why she’s doing it, during the film proper–good old David!). I’m pleased that Moore finally got her Best Actress Oscar–but this is the role she truly deserved it for. Mr. Bird, Ms. Wasikowska and Ms. Williams are exceptional as well, with only Mr. Cusack struggling to make a complete connection with the Cronenberg template. Maybe he’ll solidify on repeat views–I’ve already watched “Maps to the Stars” twice.
Would it not disappoint, if I denied some words about my fabled ‘S’ team? Howard Shore’s music is good, but far from his best work, while Peter Suschitzky’s lensing is equally impressive in dark interiors, as it is during shots of the sun-dappled empty L.A. I’m pleased with Ronald Sanders usually sterling edit–the pacing of “Maps” never flags. Strong Carol Spier production design too…but not as exceptional as her previous Cronenberg releases. Indeed, some of the ‘S’ team seems to have had minor issues with the adjustment to the La-La Land setting. Sister Denise Cronenberg turns in a mostly fitting costume design, however. In many ways, “MttS” is Cronenberg’s most difficult film in decades. That doesn’t make it bad, and, of course, his work can never be dismissed. It simply isn’t as seamless as “Cosmopolis”, or as epic as “A Dangerous Method”, or as focused as “Eastern Promises”. I can see him working a little bit here. Although, in fairness, it’s easy to accuse me of being “overly familiar” with his work. It’s also not difficult to fathom “MttS” appreciating well over time…I encountered a similar journey with “Spider” over a decade ago. So, when all was said and done, I honestly had a helluva good time with “Maps to te Stars”. Is it David C’s “Mulholland Dr.”? I’m not certain yet. How about you watch it, and inform me? For now, it’s a good enough David Cronenberg feature, that only suffers from its failure to achieve greatness. The man is mortal after all.
Grade: a B+ for now, with a strong desire to achieve a “weak” A- upon obsessive repeat viewings