For the first two thirds of his career, Canadian director David Cronenberg was known as the king of “body-horror.” Who can forget the phallic appendages grown by Marilyn Chambers in “Rabid” or the quasi-vaginal VCR slit in James Woods’ stomach in “Videodrome”? While not queer himself, Cronenberg’s films are full of images of gender and sexual fluidity, made most explicit in “M. Butterfly” and “Crash.” They’ve influenced gay directors like Todd Haynes.
With his latest film, “Maps to the Stars,” Cronenberg ventures to the US for a shoot for the first time. It should be no surprise that the result isn’t exactly a paean to the American Dream. A bigger surprise is that screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s sour voice dominates, though it’s true that Cronenberg has grown increasingly reliant on other writers’ work, as well, sometimes to his detriment.
“Maps to the Stars” begins with a young woman asleep on a bus. She turns out to be Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a Twitter friend of Carrie Fisher’s who has just arrived in Hollywood from Florida, having pretty much been discarded by her family, who have their own demons. She makes friends with a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and quickly gets a job as an assistant to Havana (Julianne Moore), a troubled actress angling for a role as her own mother. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a self-help guru with a celebrity coterie. His 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child star who just got out of rehab. In lieu of Oxycontin, he’s now pounding energy drinks and returning to the “Bad Babysitter” franchise.
“Maps to the Stars” is the latest in a long line of films about women getting screwed over by Hollywood, from Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire.” It exposes the plastic, tabloid mentality ruling LA. Or does it? The dialogue is full of name-dropping. For example, Wagner’s script presumes that the audience will recognize that a reference to “Harvey” probably means Miramax and Weinstein Company founder Harvey Weinstein. Lynch’s films didn’t rely on such knowledge. It doesn’t seem to be just a coincidence that the limo driver, who comes off the best of any of these characters, is loosely based on the young Wagner.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say “Maps to the Stars” does away with body-horror. Agatha’s hands and body are covered with burns, the result of a childhood accident we gradually learn more about. But we never see them. The real horror in “Maps to the Stars” is psychological, largely the product of incest; it feels like almost everyone in the film is a victim. Wagner is aiming for Greek tragedy here, but missing. His mythic tone, which calls attention to the symbolism of fire and water and the way certain characters have been marked by these elements, feels like the product of a particularly ambitious grad student.
Visually, Cronenberg lends a chilly elegance to the dark side of LA. The production design can’t be faulted either; most characters’ homes look like largely empty art galleries. This style, as effective as it is conceptually, doesn’t do the bleak humor of Wagner’s script any favors. But Wagner’s vision has been outdone by Matthew Stokoe’s brutal novel “High Life” or even Dan Gilroy’s tabloid saga “Nightcrawler.” Fame’s underbelly is part of what attracts people to Hollywood, just as the dangers of hard drugs, as well as their pleasures, appeal to people looking to lose themselves for a few hours. A real cautionary tale about Hollywood would show actors fiddling with their cell phones for hours while people set up lights, not teens drinking GHB, playing with guns, and engaging in perverse sex.
MAPS TO THE STARS | Directed by David Cronenberg | Focus World | Opens Feb. 27 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com