A little over a week ago, novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner told us about growing up in Beverly Hills among stars and starlets and, after dropping out of Beverly Hills High, driving them around in his limo. “At the time I wrote Maps to the Stars, I was a journeyman Pat Hobby on the road to ruin. I was in possession of a cubbyhole office in the far outfield of Paramount, bestowed on the strength of a hot comedy I had written that had been shot but never released and was deemed to be unsalvageable, due to its director’s spiraling addictions.” That was more than 20 years ago.
David Cronenberg’s finally made the movie, which premiered in Cannes to mixed reviews. Wagner in the Guardian: “Contrary to critics’ easy characterization, it doesn’t have a satirical bone in its elegiac, messy, hysterical body. I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it. Maps is the saga of a doomed actress, haunted by the spectre of her legendary mother; of a child star ruined by early celebrity, fallen prey to addiction and the hallucination of phantoms; of the mutilation, both real and metaphorical, sometimes caused by fame and its attendants—riches, shame and nightmare. I see our movie as a ghost play, not a satire.”
“Wagner’s scenario is marked by the bitterness of an insider lashing out at a profession whose uglier qualities—paranoia, resentment, entitlement—he ends up reinforcing rather than critiquing,” writes Nathan Lee, one of Cronenberg’s most dedicated champions, in Film Comment. “That’s not to say there aren’t some dark pleasures to be had…. And yet there is a question I couldn’t quite shake: why did Cronenberg make this movie? One answer is that Maps to the Stars is entirely consistent with an ethnographic turn in late Cronenberg, each of whose post-eXistenZ pictures has analyzed family conflicts within precise, historically specific terrains that lean heavily on the investments of the individual scriptwriters or source materials: working-class England, small-town America, the Russian underworld in London, the cosmopolitan Europe of prewar psychoanalysis. Each of these milieux is, of course, an abstraction to some degree: the ‘America’ in A History of Violence  is no less hallucinated than the ‘Tangier’ of Naked Lunch , and the domain of finance capital mapped in Cosmopolis  is rigorously precise concerning a geography that has been radically dematerialized. This development grows from Cronenberg’s longstanding interest in the ways tribal protocols overlap with inscrutable pathologies, while pushing the analysis toward new forms of local contingency.”
Maps is “Cronenberg’s worst movie in fifteen years,” argues Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope. “There’s some sociological stuff about the tragic vulnerability of showbiz kids, and some Freudian stuff about the pull of parent-child attraction, and some Jungian stuff about collective guilt and anxiety, and some sub-Michael Tolkin digs at casting-couch practices, and a couple of good nasty lines (like the one about whether or not a Make-a-Wish girl has AIDS). Cronenberg’s sole directorial innovation is to consistently isolate his characters in one-shots, which is effective but hardly a rousing example of late style. Apologists will probably find enough in here to make the case, but it’s a vulgar auteurism indeed that has to keep saying it’s sorry.”
Budd Wilkins disagrees, awarding 3.5 out of 4 stars to Maps at Slant and calling the film “a scabrous, etched-in-acid comedy that digs deeper into the perversions and pathologies undergirding the Dream Factory than anything since Mulholland Drive.” What’s more, it “adroitly toes a tonal tightrope throughout, effortlessly balancing the demands of disparate genre elements: There are dollops of industry satire, Chekhovian family drama, and, most surprisingly, elegiac ghost story in this heady (and exceedingly strange) brew. The cumulative effect is altogether unusual, though there are certain family resemblances: In some ways, Cronenberg’s film comes across like an incestuous cousin to Robert Altman’s The Player.”
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey reintroduces us to the cast:
Our portal in is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives shortly after the fade-up with stars in her eyes and vague connections to Carrie Fisher and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13-year-old movie star who’s already done a stint in rehab. Benjie’s considerable messes are cleaned up by his ruthless stage mother (Olivia Williams) and his father (John Cusack), author of a Secret-like tome and practitioner of a peculiar brand of pseudo-sexual massage psychotherapy. One of his star clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a one-time ingénue now struggling for relevance, and campaigning desperately to play a role originated by her mother (Sarah Gadon), whose ghost is currently haunting her at inopportune moments. Havana is looking for a new personal assistant, so she hires Agatha on Carrie Fisher’s recommendation, thus bringing the cast full circle (although Robert Pattinson also floats in occasionally, as an actor/writer/chauffeur, now on the other side of the limo glass from his character in Cosmopolis).
With Cosmopolis and Maps, Cronenberg has “created a pair of astute films which interface with each other in ways that are distinctive from the films (and interests) for which he is known,” argues Violet Lucca in Little White Lies.
“Los Angeles is lucky that it’s the mature, Oscar-aspiring 71-year-old Cronenberg—not the younger gross-out shockmeister—who’s paid us a visit,” writes Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly. “Maps to the Stars is too overblown to feel like a targeted attack, yet too dour to work as satire. Cronenberg’s caught the scent of the city—the ambition, the gossip, the destructive boredom—but hasn’t bagged the monster. Los Angeles remains at large.”
“Energy comes mainly from the poisonous glee of Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year,” writes Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman:
Maps to the Stars charts the admirable tenacity of disease as much as Rabid or The Fly does, only now Hollywood is the body through which cancerous cells move inexorably, attacking a feeble immune system. Cronenberg’s preoccupations haven’t altered noticeably from Shivers, through his 1990s films of taboo novels (Naked Lunch, Crash), and on to his mid-2000s thrillers starring Viggo Mortensen as two different kinds of infiltrator (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). Even A Dangerous Method, his 2011 picture about the birth of psychoanalysis, includes a line delivered by Freud to Jung as their ship approaches America: “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” Cronenberg’s cinema has endured because it is profound and playful but also because it assumes fresh manifestations as readily as a virus adapting to a series of new hosts.
“In a world dominated by appearances and ruthless emotional manipulation, Maps to the Stars suggests, in the most twisted way possible, the enduring vitality of authentic family ties to transcend it all,” suggests Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online.
More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 4/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 5/5) and Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk). Tim Lewis interviews Cronenberg for the Guardian and Charles McGrath profiles Moore for the New York Times. Meantime, at The Kind of Face You Hate, Bill Ryan is already 15 parts into his Cronenberg series.
Updates, 9/27: “I suppose one could make a case for David Cronenberg’s long and marvelous career being an extended chronicle of hermetically closed eco-systems violently breaking down due to the presence of an outside irritant,” writes Sean Burns. “The rogue element is typically deviant lust—colorfully rendered via car-fucking, twin-swapping, an uncontrollable urge to spank Kiera Knightley or just plain old Mugwump jism—but we could also easily be talking about Viggo’s pseudonymous gangsters in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Robert Pattinson’s asymmetrical prostate in Cosmopolis, or the fly itself in The Fly. If you’ll permit me to be grossly reductive about this vastly varied yet singularly specific body of work, Cronenberg’s point seems to be that from small things, big things crumble. Maps to the Stars provides Cronenberg with his most glamorous, insidiously insular antfarm yet: Hollywood. It’s an easy, obvious target, which is probably why it feels like such a crushing disappointment from a filmmaker I usually revere.”
For Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail, “this is a movie that is curiously obsessed with its own inertness. The majority of the film is shot in static, blocked-off close-ups and the noticeable lack of any sort of sound design or ambiance leaves an oddly blank void of a canvas for the story to unfold upon.” Tully argues that it’s all “done with the intention of making the film an empty vessel to deliver a bunch of wild, uninhibited performances, and the reason the lack of noticeable filmmaking is so unnerving is that a purely performance-driven film is becoming an increasingly rare thing.”
“This year, with Maps to the Stars and Still Alice, the Julianne Moore I first fell for… came roaring back into full power,” writes Nathaniel Rogers. “Pity, then, that [Maps] can’t quite keep up with her or harness her brilliant satirical embodiment of all that is self-absorbed, self-loathing, self-medicated, and self-serving in modern Hollywood celebrity.”
Updates, 9/28: “For this skeptic,” writes Reverse Shot co-editor Jeff Reichert, “Cronenberg’s choice of making back-to-back present-day satires based on decades-old material implies something is amiss, that the held perception of Canada’s most cutting-edge filmmaker needs a bit of realignment…. Let us assume for an instant that perhaps Cronenberg is fully aware his satire is stale, that his critique of contemporary Hollywood lacks trenchancy. So what, then is Maps to the Stars up to?” Is it “a modern-day stab at Sophoclean tragedy? Paul Elard’s poem
‘Liberté’ (once airdropped by the thousands over occupied WWII Paris) is read by various characters throughout—is the film, then, an anguished cry against a system that totalizes and destroys lives in the process of creating entertainment for others? Is Cronenberg telegraphing an allegiance to Billy Wilder that his body of work thus far has never suggested? More likely, Maps is just a lesser version of what Paul Schrader accomplished last year with his much-derided The Canyons.”
But for the Observer‘s Mark Kermode, The Canyons is “a classic case of people in glass houses merrily throwing bricks at themselves. Good job, then, that perennial outsider David Cronenberg clearly isn’t the least bit dazzled or seduced by the cultural cesspool of his latest movie, a tale of terminal Tinseltown wastrels with the twisted structure of a Greek tragedy and the rictus grin of a freshly poisoned sitcom…. If The Brood (an early body-horror gem starring Samantha Eggar) was Cronenberg’s Kramer vs Kramer, then Maps is his Sunset Boulevard, with sprinklings of Chinatown, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest thrown in for good measure.”
Updates, 9/29: “For all the denials that it’s satire, that’s exactly what it is,” writes a disappointed David Cairns.
Update, 10/1: Cronenberg’s first novel, Consumed, “partakes of the full menu of interests and obsessions that have long fed Cronenberg’s cinema—the interpenetration of mind and body and of flesh and technology, the irony of mortality, the fear of being controlled by forces hovering on the brink of comprehension—an absurdist vision seesawing between comedy and tragedy.” Amy Taubin in Artforum: “In Consumed, this project is articulated with more verve, wit, and abandon than in Cronenberg’s films after A History of Violence (2005), which have been burdened by source material or scripts written by others to whom the director inexplicably feels obligated. That is the case with his latest film, Maps to the Stars… A devastating depiction of narcissistic isolation and rage, Maps could have been located anywhere ruled by selfies. Bruce Wagner’s script, however, is set in Hollywood, a choice so hoary that it’s amazing the film has the effect of a one-two punch to head and gut.” More on Consumed here and here.
Update, 10/4: Alison Nastasi interviews Cronenberg for Flavorwire.
Henry Barnes talks with John Cusack for the Guardian.
Update, 10/6: At Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov will grant “that Cronenberg has been for some time now a master of shot-reverse shot; his precision in collapsing and expanding space between people and executing rack focuses is Polanski/Fincher-level masterful…. Still, I can’t get around the fact that this is a terrible script, and I’m not sure Cronenberg grasps that that’s an insurmountable problem. A salute, though, to Mia Wasikowska, in the year’s most thankless great performance.”
Update, 10/7: At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri talks with Cronenberg about Consumed: “At first I thought, of course I’m going to want to make a movie of my own novel, because how many directors get a chance to do that, or how many novelists get a chance to do that? And I have like five producers who I’ve worked with before who all tell me, ‘We’d like to make a movie of this with you.’ But then I realized it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, actually, because it feels complete. I feel like I’ve done it [already], and I think it would be actually kind of boring for me to do it again. And that surprised me.” And later, in a response to a question about Maps: “At Cannes, someone said, ‘Have you ever considered making a comedy?’ And I said, ‘I’ve done nothing but.'”
At Slate, Karina Longworth finds that Consumed “at first seems to delight in the cool, futurist potential of the present, and then slowly reveals itself to be a cautionary tale.”
Update, 10/9: “Maps to the Stars, despite long comic sections, is able to flip within seconds from mere parody to terrifying,” writes Eric Fuchs at Criticwire. “One second Savana might be her usual superficial self, and then suddenly the ghost of Clarise appears floating in a bathtub, slowly tearing through this character’s entire defenses. Long-time Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore just plays a few notes and suddenly the comedy is gone, replaced by primal terror. Between the those alarming moments, though, Maps to the Stars gets dangerously close to being as shallow as the universe it is portraying.”
Update, 10/19: Chris Wallace talks Cronenberg for Interview.
Updates, 11/2: “Maps to the Stars is alarming and ultimately bloody, even by Cronenberg’s standards, and is good for much the same thing as the purges that so many Hollywood people undergo,” suggests Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “It detoxifies you a little—not of alimentary contaminants, but of the cruelty and venality we’re all encouraged to swallow—and permits you a lot of appalled laughter in the process.”
“I like the idea of Hollywood being incestuous, an enclosed ecosystem of ideas, with no oxygen, no new blood, everything recirculating and getting weaker, as we see with sequel after sequel after sequel,” Cronenberg tells Josef Braun. “It was pleasing as a metaphor for what’s wrong with studio filmmaking.”
Update, 11/3: “It’s conceivable that the screenplay, by Bruce Wagner, was intended to be adapted as broad farce,” grants Calum Marsh, writing for the National Post. “But it seems that in almost every aspect of the production, Cronenberg is determined to work against the script as it was written. The question thus becomes: To what end? Maps to the Stars is a weird film—perhaps an appealingly elusive one, insofar as its precise import remains difficult to apprehend. And I suppose peculiarity, as realized by a filmmaker as skilled as Cronenberg, is preferable to the shopworn Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars might have been in less imaginative hands. And yet the fact remains that for all the mystifying pleasures the experience affords, I still have no idea, several months after my first impression, what to make of it. It’s true that we didn’t need another film about the vacuity of celebrity culture. What’s unclear is if we needed whatever this is instead.”
Update, 11/10: Writing for the New Republic, Toby Litt argues that Consumed is “a subtler and more interesting work” than either Cosmopolis or Maps to the Stars.