David Cronenberg has directed his fair share of movies about crazy people. Shivers, which was one of his earliest movies, is about a mad scientist who creates a mind-altering blood-sucking leech that he hoped would turn the entire Earth into one giant orgy, and while he has become slightly less pulpy over the years he's never completely turned his back on his unhinged beginnings. Maps to the Stars is his most recent movie, and its also chock-a-block with the cuckoo, but this time there aren't any malcontents in labcoats. No, as you might have guessed from its title Maps to the Stars is about Hollywood loonies.
Specifically, its about Havana, a past her prime prima donna who would do anything to land a coveted role; Agatha, a mysterious burn victim who seems to have the hots for her estranged brother; Benjie, a teen star who has already been through rehab; and then there's Stafford, a motivational speaker who projects an image of perfection to the world but who actually has a rather tragic personal life.
Maps to the Stars is the sort of movie where every character's trauma is turned up to ten and where their every action is meant to have heavy metaphysical implications. As such, it should have been the sort of juicy, larger-than-life collection of trainwrecks that viewers can't take their eyes off of. But as I was watching it I kept asking myself: who cares?
Why the disconnect? Well, I often can't connect with cynical movies, and Maps to the Stars is definitely cynical, but that wasn't my problem. While it is satirizing a bunch of wounded people with icy precision, it also gives them enough moments of dignity that it doesn't feel totally exploitative. Nor was I upset by its lack of subtlety. After all I generally think that Cronenberg is at his best when he's gunning for it full throttle. No, what bothered me about Maps to the Stars was that I'm tired of hearing about stars.
I've just seen too many movies about the absurdities of L.A. to be particularly engaged with that specific micro-genre. It's been sixty five years since Sunset Boulevard was released and ten years since TMZ was founded - is there anyone out there who doesn't think that Hollywood is wall-to-wall with nutbags? You know that a territory is very well trod when it has been covered both by highbrow exposes and lowbrow gossip rags.
I understand that Cronenberg isn't merely trying to write a poison pen love letter to L.A., but his broader message about the ways that madness manifests itself in human beings would have felt fresher if it had been conveyed in a less generic manner. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the script completely lacks originality - you don't often see incest between burned siblings in tinseltown takedowns - but those moments lose their punch when they are sandwhiched between scenes where teen stars are acting out like the spoiled children they really are or where over-entitled rich ladies yell at their assistants. You never know what kind of trashy insanity you might see in a trailer park, but the sorts of bad behavior you see in a luxury spa are much more predictable.
Which brings me to a deeper issue that I have with these types of movies: they seem to presume that artistic types have a monopoly on crazy, but that obviously isn't true. Oh, sure, the rich and famous definitely have more leeway to express their worst instincts, and their money and power might even let them get away with bad behavior depressingly often, but you don't have to search very hard in any given crowd to find people who are unhinged and unrepetant. In all the years that I have been using Craigslist to find new roommates I have never met a millionaire but I have met many, many people who should never have been allowed in my home.
Movies about the dark side of Hollywood always have an unresolved tension in their core: on the one hand they want to make it clear that Hollywood is not as glamorous and magical as it might seem, but they also presume that it is corrupt and decadent in a way that's more titillating than the way that (say) Omaha is corrupt and decadent. They want to prove how human the stars are but without taking them off a pedestal - they might be flawed, but they are the most fascinating type of flawed. It's a very limited approach: if you believe that our elites are more worthy of being gawked at than our peasants then you are never going to be able to take them down all the way into the muck.
Maps to the Stars is not the worst movie about celebrity crazies that I've ever seen. David Cronenberg is smart enough to keep the story from getting excessively navel-gazey, and he's also interested in the extremes of human existence enough to push the limit past what other movies have done with similar material. That said, Maps to the Stars also doesn't go far enough to feel fresh. It has specific details that I haven't seen before, but its overall shape is frustratingly familiar. And while I'm used to being semi-frustrated by Cronenberg movies, I'm not used to being bored by them. I would never argue that Shivers was perfect, but at least it's orgy leach infestation never made me sleepy.
Winner: The Cat