Screenplay: Bruce Wagner
Stars: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson
Drama 2014, 111 minutes
Reviewer Jacqueline Lucas Palmer
Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is a thrilling ride through a gruesome cesspool of insecure actors, producers, directors and scriptwriters who populate a world obsessed with percentages, income, networking, self- promotion and youth. Hollywood’s finest get to play the stars in this self- referential darkly comic tale, starring Julianne Moore as Havana Segrund, a forty something, fading and embittered actress, desperate to play in the fifties melodrama her mother Clarice starred in before her death by fire. This obsessive dream is proving impossible for Havana in a culture where twenty- six-year-old actresses are dismissed as ‘menopausal’. Haunted by visions of her abusive mother, her painful memories are stoked by Stafford Weiss, (John Cusack) a millionaire self-help guru, who uses a peculiar mix of trauma therapy and deep tissue massage to fuel her wounds. “Stop forgiving”, he coaches, while concealing the serious dysfunction in his own family. While Stafford babysits his rich and famous clientele, his actor son Benji stars in the Baby Sitter film franchise. An obnoxious thirteen year old, he calculates percentage points with his stage mum over breakfast, visits sick children in a blatant PR exercise, and abuses his middle aged assistants, “why don’t you show me your cunt, Jew faggot”. As Babysitter 2 producer says, “that kind of income would fuck up Mother Teresa”.
These narcissistic actors need round the clock babysitting themselves, cue Agatha (played by Mia Wasikowska). She turns up on a bus to Hollywood, with a film script, a secret past, and serious burn scars, wearing the Baby Sitter franchise T-shirt. With a connection made online to ‘real’ Hollywood film star Carrie Fisher, Agatha is soon doing errands for Havana as her ‘chore whore’ for Xanax, Zoloft and Vicodin, dictated by Havana from her toilet seat. In this youth and beauty-obsessed hell addiction is rife, “Hell is a world without narcotics” she tells her mother’s apparition, as her anti-anxiety and pain medication numb her wounded ego. “No one escapes the long arm of twelve step” Stafford warns his estranged daughter, while Benji, his thirteen year old is already in recovery.
In this alienated community of wounded narcissists, abused agents and assistants pander to the outrageous demands of their stars, waiting in the wings for their turn at the silver screen, prepared to do anything in return for a break. Enter Jerome, (played by Robert Pattinson), a limo driver to the stars, who in Hollywood lore translates as resting actor/scriptwriter. Agatha hooks up with him over networking, sex and film projects, work-shopping her film script under the iconic Hollywood sign. In this atmosphere of insecurity and paranoia everyone is fake. Relationships are backbiting and fuelled by networking and business. Even Havana’s threesome is interrupted by her partner’s business call. Havana air-kisses Azita, a young actress and her nemesis, while waiting for an opportunity to take her down. When the film offers a tragic turn, Havana celebrates Azita’s misfortune, dancing in a macabre display, though treachery has dire consequences.
“Used up old hole” Havana’s mother’s apparition taunts her, fuelling her hysteria around ageing, dismissing her accusations as false memory syndrome. No wonder then that in this world of superficiality. Illusion and deceit these characters are plagued with visions, unable to discriminate what’s real, in a collective schizophrenic disorder that lies at the heart of the film. “I went in there and I killed it!” Havana crows to whoever will listen, in an egoistic spiral that finds her at the centre of her mother’s tragic story, as no other film script will satisfy. Alongside her self-deception is a drive for full disclosure, as she shares her abuse story on TV. Stafford chimes: ”What we can name we can tame”, kneading the shame in her thighs on a ‘personal history point’. But therapy is no use to these traumatised souls. Stafford is economical with his own history, worried that Agatha’s appearance will threaten his book tour. “The whole world will know” cries Benji’s mother, as if exposure is the crime, rather than her son’s violence and their family’s awful history.
Eighteen-thousand-dollar shopping sprees offer little relief for the culture’s prevailing envy. Benji despises his younger, cuter child co-star for stealing his limelight “I want the little piece of shit flushed” and Havana, on hearing Azita has landed her coveted role, emits monstrous screams from her lotus position, like an image from Cronenberg’s horror oeuvre. While viewers see ‘Maps’ as darkly comic satire, the director and scriptwriter insist they’ve heard every word of the script uttered, and Cusack quotes actresses “put out to pasture at twenty nine”. In a culture that can never be too rich or too thin, Havana purrs to Jerome “Are my holes better?” In this mad universe, she cannot bear the loss of her sexual attraction, desperate to seduce Agatha’s boyfriend to prove she can.
Maps to the Stars references films and actors in an incestuous claustrophobic mirror; Agatha meets the ‘real’ Carrie Fisher online, the actor Robert Pattinson gets to escape his real-life film franchise Twilight, and drives his own limo this time (after Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). Incest is a powerful theme enclosed in a universe where bad babysitters are not restricted to the franchise, but to all the characters who neglect their responsibilities to one another. The film’s stars play characters that name- drop actors, and quote films: “Go back to Kansas Dorothy” Havana tells Agatha, after a shocking moment involving a ‘twelve-thousand-dollar couch’. Benji’s therapist invites him to look at the secrets of his childhood. In this ‘Return of the Repressed’, Stafford’s crimes are played out by his children in creepy wedding games, while Agatha’s incantation of Eluard’s poem Liberty, plays like a crazed stalker to the stars, hell-bent on destruction. Like a Greek tragedy, violence is ghoulish and shocking, from gunplay, to accidents by fire and water, both murder and suicide. It’s a dysfunctional twisted world for which there is no cure and no balm to the spirit. The Dalai Lama is ‘a real pro’, in a city home to spiritual gurus and healing centres, called to administer an industry that is crying for help.
Jacqueline Lucas Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.