VIFF Review: Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg makes two kinds of films: Great ones and weird ones. I’m honestly not sure which category Maps to the Stars falls into. On the one hand, it’s a biting indictment of Hollywood and the stars who live there and features some fantastic performances, but on the other, it’s a muddled mess of slow-moving plots, some of which are never resolved.

2014 Vancouver International Film Festival

The story begins with a girl named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving in Los Angeles. She meets Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver. She gets a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an ageing actress with severe personality disorders. It turns out she’s also connected to the child star of the moment, Benji (Evan Bird) and his parents, domineering mother (Olivia Williams) and new age self-help guru father (John Cusack).

There are more connections between all the characters, but without spoiling too much of the plot, I can tell you that the movie spreads itself way too thin and does so too slowly. There are many things to like here; first and foremost, Julianne Moore diving headfirst into a troubled character. And I don’t mean troubled like “she’s wacky”; I mean troubled like “this woman is self-obsessed, narcissistic, willing to do anything to get to the top, and is also haunted by the ghost of her mother”.

Yes, one of the subplots is a ghost story. Two of the subplots are ghost stories, at least in part. Another is Havana Segrand desperately trying to get a part in a remake of a film her mother starred in –playing the same role– despite having a, shall we say, complicated relationship with her mother. And her mother’s ghost. Did I mention there is a ghost story?

Moore is in fine form here. I’m not kidding when I say she dives headfirst into the emotional turmoil of this troubled character. It’s difficult that she is stuck opposite Mia Wasikowska, who is about as charismatic as a two-by-four (which, to be fair, seems to be by design).

John Cusack also dives headfirst into his new-age self-help massage therapist character, with the critical difference being that instead of being bipolar, he’s just legitimately creepy.

Strangely, it feels like there could have been a legitimately great film here. If it has just been the story of Havana Segrand going insane working on a remake of her mother’s film, or if it has just been the story of a young girl with a troubled past trying to reconnect with her estranged family, or if it had just been the story of an actor/writer/limo driver trying to make it in LA and being corrupted by the broken people around him, then the film may have had some focus and been more compelling. It’s that last one that is the most infuriating. An audience insert character we could relate to would have redeemed almost everything about this movie, but instead, we see the story through the eyes of arguably the most troubled character.

Maps to the Stars has a couple of great performances to keep it going, and if you like Cronenberg’s style of directing (which is a little cold and detached), then you might like this, but it’s a bit of a mess, and it’s a mess that isn’t redeemed by it’s few highlights for me.