I don’t like to admit it, but every now and then, I do enjoy picking up a tabloid. Simply put, it’s fun to read about nonsense like what everyone’s wearing and see that celebrities are really “just like us.” And the same goes for covering industry news as well. I truly enjoy finding out what everyone’s up to, whether I’m a fan or not, and that’s a big part of the reason David Cronenberg’s latest works so well. Maps to the Stars is a Hollywood satire that takes you behind the scenes and dishes out joke after joke at the industry’s expense, but screenwriter Bruce Wagner also slips in an offbeat and riveting mystery that makes the experience more than a fleeting laugh, but rather a dark, absurd and disturbing experience that’ll stick with you well after it ends.
There are quite a few key characters in play here, but the standout is the film’s Cannes Best Actress winner, Julianne Moore. She steps in as Havana Segrand, an aging and fading actress desperate to attain the role of her dreams, a role her late mother once played. Her pursuit is disgustingly hilarious and incredibly entertaining. Everything Havana says and does will make you sick to your stomach, but, at the same time, her behavior is mesmerizing. She’s an extremely reactive character who’s prone to temper tantrums and it’s an absolute thrill waiting to see what insult she’ll spew out next.
Havana’s behavior is deliberately satirical and over-the-top. She easily could have become a one-dimensional joke and means of poking fun at industry culture, but Moore actually manages to make her feel like a real person – albeit one trapped in a world of privilege, excess and me, me, me. It’s hard to sympathize with Havana. She’s mean, completely self-involved and does wildly deplorable things, but Moore does make her goal palpable, so even though there’s no agreeing with how she goes about attaining it, the mission is still accessible and that keeps the character from becoming pure comedy and allows the viewer to connect (not relate) to her.
No one’s as successful as Moore in that respect, but Mia Wasikowska does come close. There’s a reason we’ve seen so much of Wasikowska since Alice in Wonderland; there’s something inherently appealing about her and that quality helps turn Agatha into a particularly curious character. The film opens with Agatha heading off to Tinseltown. She comes across as someone’s who’s just obsessed with big stars and their lifestyles, but it soon becomes clear that Agatha has a dark, hidden agenda. The thing is, even though you know she’s up to no good, it’s not so easy to write her off. There are people around her who make it abundantly clear that she’s bad news and there’s definitely something off about her the moment she steps on screen, but Wasikowska throws in this tiny bit of humanity that inspires you to hold on to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, she isn’t totally crazy.
This is especially effective because Wasikowska shares quite a bit of screen time with Moore. Moore’s character is outwardly nasty and selfish, but Wasikowska comes across as meek and unassuming. One might have a knack for getting attention, but it’s the quiet one lurking in the background that you should really keep an eye on. In this respect, both actresses play exceptionally well off one another.
We’ve also got Robert Pattinson, John Cusack and Olivia Williams in the mix and all deliver fine performances, but it’s Sarah Gadon and Evan Bird that leave the lasting impressions. Gadon plays Clarice Taggart, Havana’s deceased mother. The character doesn’t get an arc and she’s only featured in a handful of scenes, but she is partially responsible for a number of the film’s most chilling moments. And then we’ve got Bird playing 13-year-old Benjie. He hit it big courtesy of a franchise-starter called Bad Babysitter and now he’s reveling in his newfound fame and success via drugs, entitlement and one heck of a bad attitude. But similar to Agatha, his situation isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.
Benjie’s a jerk. He walks around chugging energy drink after energy drink, gets too sassy with studio executives and brushes off fans, but he’ll also visit a children’s hospital. He may have an abhorrent reaction to a Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma/AIDs mix-up, but at least tries. And the same goes for his career. He’s got a terrible attitude, but Bird still manages to suggest that, deep down, he cares and the delicate balance between those two attributes makes Benjie more than a rising tween star cliché, but rather someone who’s particularly thoughtful and interesting to track.
Clearly there’s a lot of quality characters and scenarios in Maps to the Stars, but the downside to that is that there’s just not enough time for all of them. Pattinson’s character gets cut off rather abruptly and a few others don’t have particularly satisfying payoffs, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s best quality – its entertainment value. Maps to the Stars is part satire and part eerie, mysterious and very engaging tragedy, and the combination sparks a unique, intriguing and very funny, although very limited, view of life in Hollywood.
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