‘Maps to the Stars’: Cul-de-sac

February 27, 2015

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Writer Bruce Wagner’s script for David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” is of a piece with his other work. It blends a cynical vision of people with an even darker examination of the worship of the superficial that is Hollywood life.

But instead of the kind of roiling tale of corruption of the soul that Nathanael West wrought in “The Day of the Locust,” Wagner’s vision feels sour and whiny. His characters lead superficial lives – and their efforts to excavate more from their existence always feel doomed before they start. It’s less Nathanael West than Bret Easton Ellis, not a comparison anyone should strive for.

Wagner’s snide nihilism seems to suit director Cronenberg, whose last film was the nearly unwatchable “Cosmopolis.” I admire Cronenberg’s willingness to seriously drill down into soul rot as much as the next person; here, the human monsters he’s dealing with seem stale and overly familiar.

The film operates at a nexus in the Hollywood world between aging star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and self-help massage-therapist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). She’s at some sort of career tipping point – and she’s not tipping in the right direction.

Weiss, meanwhile, is patriarch to a Hollywood empire built around his teen-dream son Benjie (Evan Bird), who looks to be about 13. Benjie’s career is also at some sort of tipping point: His mother and his agent are in the midst of negotiating Benjie’s continued appearance as the star of a popular movie franchise, given that his very public substance-abuse problem has been treated with a trip to rehab.

The other character veering toward a steep personal cliff is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who seems to have drifted into town as a tourist but, in fact, has a plan for what she wants to accomplish in Hollywood. Just to complete the circle, Agatha lands a job as personal assistant to Havana.

This collision course of seemingly unconnected characters has worked time and again in this milieu, from “Locust” to “Sunset Boulevard” to “Nashville” and beyond. Show-business in particular seems to easily accommodate that crossed-paths kind of story.

But Wagner offers mostly condescending observations about these people. The fact that famous people behave badly and allow themselves to be stripped of their dignity and even their own sense of identity (sensations they muffle with drugs or alcohol) – well, gee, not only is it not news but it seems to be part of the bargain.

With his chilly approach to the material, Cronenberg can’t quite commit to whatever humor Wagner does achieve. There are cutting one-liners and people acting out outrageous personal choices, but the film continually distances you from the characters. This is in spite of the deliciously well-observed performances by Moore and Wasikowska – and even by Robert Pattinson, as a feckless chauffeur whose path crosses Agatha’s.

There’s a difference between tart and vinegary and “Maps to the Stars” is consistently on the wrong side of it.

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