David Cronenberg's dead-eyed Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars wasn't greeted with huzzahs when it plopped into cinemas in Febrary 2015 (after several months at various film fests). Sure, it's a painfully self-aware depiction of a Hollywood full of narcissists - directed with hardly any flair or feeling for the blacker-than-black script. Give it a fair chance, however, and you'll find it a surprisingly potent bit of bizarro-cinema.
Regardless of how well Cronenberg handled it, Maps to the Stars serves well as an example of the jaundiced, bitterly funny point-of-view of novelist-screenwriter Bruce Wagner. His fingerprints are all over this movie, a treat for fans of the outré creator of Wild Palms, the sarcastic Hollywood-biz comic strip which ran in Details magazine in the early '90s and was later adapted for a disappointing ABC miniseries. Like Wild Palms, Maps to the Stars focuses on a group of unlikable moochers who are either complacently embedded in the Hollywood system or desperately attempting to gain insider access. In this La-La Land, characters who at first appear dissimilar are revealed for the deep, kinky connections they share - such as Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a mysterious, scarred Florida transplant arriving in L.A. on a vague promise of a job from her Twitter BFF, Carrie Fisher (who appears in a cameo). After Agatha befriends a sullen limo driver and aspiring actor, Jerome (Robert Pattinson), she improbably ends up in the employ of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an insecure middle-aged actress desperately gunning for a comeback. Havana will do anything to step out of the shadows of her actress mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon), who died young and beautiful. Between self-pitying crying fits and shopping jaunts, Havana throws what sanity she has left into a campaign to play her mother in an upcoming biopic, bad timing since Clarice keeps appearing before her in disturbing, quasi-incestuous visions.
Hallucinations also figure in Maps to the Stars' parallel story, involving a similarly screwed-up industry family. The phony self-help guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) coaches Havana with an assurance lacking in the leadership of his own brood - including his doormat wife, Christina (Olivia Williams), and the actor son she manages. Benjie (Evan Bird), the egotistical teen star of the hit Bad Babysitter movie franchise, is a recovering addict with a chip on his shoulder. The boy winds up having his own random, disturbed visions of the dead, such as the hospitalized young girl whose deathbed visit Benjie treated as just another p.r. stunt. The burned girl from Florida, Agatha, figures here as well - being Benjie's sister. The delusional Agatha has a complicated past - Dr. Weiss had her committed for causing the accident which left her scarred.
Maps to the Stars was stained with the perception that Universal postponed this release to capitalize on star Moore's Oscar buzz for Still Alice - a move which also made some sense, since Moore's uninhibited performance is clearly the best thing about this movie. In a role that calls for a fully nude three-way and uncontrollable farting on a toilet seat, Moore manages to give Havana some sympathy and depth. The limitations of a small budget and Cronenberg's surprisingly bland, nearly subliminal direction fail to add much to Wagner's biting satire - nevertheless, the movie winds up being a brave, thought-provoking glimpse at the over-the-top corruption of showbiz.
Universal and Entertainment One's Maps to the Stars no-frills DVD release is as much of an afterthought as its theatrical run - just the movie, pressed on a disc, housed in a paperboard slipcover with an "Also available on Blu-ray to get the most from your HDTV" sticker. I've got an idea - maybe book publishers should follow their lead and affix their paperback editions with an "Also available in hardback to get the most from your arm muscles" sticker.
Maps to the Stars' 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen disc presentation captures the film's sunlit exteriors and designer interiors pretty well. The picture is a little bit soft (owing to the DVD-level resolution), although the light levels and dark scenes are robustly done. A digitally-shot film with little to no post-production trickery, the film looks typical of its type but nice and agreeable. Note: although the screen shots accompanying this review look squeezed, the image has normal proportions.
The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is done in an effective, pristine-sounding mix which doesn't add much in the way of atmosphere, although the dialogue is well-integrated with the music and sound effects tracks. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Do the auto-play previews for other Universal films count? Otherwise, it's as barren as Benjie's soul.
Maps to the Stars reminded me of a milder, somewhat less nuanced Mulholland Drive. David Cronenberg doesn't appear to have much affinity for this acid-soaked sendup of egotistical Hollywood types, although he does get some good performances here and there. An unrestrained Julianne Moore and the pitch-black humor of screenwriter Bruce Wagner make this underserved flop worth seeking out. Recommended.