Maps to the Stars

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/02/15 05:09:20

"Should have stayed off the map."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Hollywood stories can be self-indulgent or snide, depending on what sort of axes the people making them have to grind, rarely managing to hit the sweet spot in the middle. What they seldom are, though, is extraneous, but that's what happens with "Maps to the Stars" - there's one track that's a nifty little story with some potential. Whenever it gets into stuff that's specifically about the movie business, on the other hand, one can't help but be reminded that David Cronenberg used to make things far more original than this.

The movie-star track involves Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a second-generation actress who has reached an age when staying relevant takes a lot of tenacity if you're even given a chance. She's currently focused on landing a role in a remake of one of her mother's movies, and that mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) is appearing to her as something between a haunting and a hallucination. Havana has regular sessions with pop psychiatrist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), whose own son Benjie (Evan Bird) is an actor, with mother Christina (Olivia Williams) handling his career. Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), meanwhile, is just off the bus from an institution in Florida, and while she soon lands a job as Havana's assistant, it's Stafford, Benjie, and Christina who are most concerned about the young woman with the burns on her skin.

As soon as Stafford finds out that Agatha is in town, there's a tremendous tension to the Weiss side of the film, and while what writer Bruce Wagner has concocted is maybe not enough to fill a feature-length film as it is, it probably could be with a little more effort - it's got the makings of a Greek tragedy, and while many of the people involved are unstable in one way or another, their motivations still tend to be human and understandable. It's a fractious enough web of relationships on its own that the bits that involve Benjie being a self-centered brat of a child actor just seem little more than the latest time over some rather well-treaded ground.

And if that's the case with Benjie, it's doubly so with Havana, as her story is a rapid-fire string of neurotic-actor cliches with an interesting idea buried underneath. Julianne Moore probably had lots of fun hamming it up as Havana, but it's such a broad performance that the interesting idea of a woman who feels like she is in constant competition with her dead mother - more so than usual because her old movies allow Clarice's image to be locked into her youth while Havana ages - is all but smothered. There are also bits of Havana's story that seem meant to be ambiguous but which don't actually derive any benefit from being so.

The links between the two threads often seem random - a death in Havana's story winds up haunting Benjie, and while Agatha's presence in Havana's life (and flirtation with driver/actor/writer Jerome Fontana) gives the audience some time to see what her state of mind is before reuniting her with her family, it's just standard "demanding movie star being demanding". Cronenberg squeezes what he can out of it - there are a few unnerving moments and nice juxtaposition of insanity alongside sane callousness - but for all that Wagner's script is probably not missing much in terms of Hollywood behavior, that's never more interesting than the particular issues within the Weiss family.

It's a shame to waste such a cast on this. Moore is certainly memorable as Havana, at least, although her histrionics are seldom as impressive as Mia Wasikowska's deceptively focused Agatha. John Cusack's Stafford Weiss gets more interesting the creepier he is allowed to be, and Olivia Williams is underused as a stage mother who certainly seems like she may have more to her. It's amusing to see Robert Pattinson in the front of the limousine after Cosmopolis - and his uncertain demeanor often seems the most genuine thing in the movie - and Sarah Gadon does all right in her fourth movie by a member of the Cronenberg family in as many years.

There's good stuff in here, enough to make the side-track through Havana Segrand even more frustrating. The movie may be called "Maps to the Stars", but it would have been much better to avoid that territory and stick to one set of ugly family secrets.

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