David Cronenberg doesn't just make films, he continues to add to a career-wide project that builds on the same fabric from his body-horror debut Shivers in 1975, with his latest Maps To The Stars (his 21st feature film) fitting in seamlessly to this ever expanding 'Cronenberg-project'. But that doesn't mean it stands tall.
We're taken through the interwoven tales of multiple characters set across the backdrop of Hollywood; they're all either dealing with success or striving for it with even with the most privileged feeling trodden on by the system, and in some way dealing with buried past horrors that seem destined to replay. There's the central figures of the Weiss family with John Cusack as the self-help guru father, Olivia Williams as the managerial matriarch who are both steering their 13yr old child star son (Evan Bird) through rehab. The standout Julianne Moore plays fallen starlet Havana Segrand who's struggling to secure a comeback role while living in her dead mother's shadow. Limo driving and aspiring writer/actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson) and his last pick up of the day (shown in the film's opening) a heavily scarred LA newcomer (Mia Wasikowska) who links all these lives together.
One never goes into a Cronenberg film expecting to sit comfortably but here it often puts you on edge for the wrong reasons in that it's baffling how such a cerebral, insightful filmmaker has settled on material such as this. When outwardly commenting on Hollywood and the studio circus that verges on satire (it never really gets there) the film feels ultimately juvenile and out of date if only by a few years. In this ever quickening media frenzied world the finger needs to be right on the pulse if successful satire is desired but here even a 2010 release may have helped this feel fresher. Hollywood and all its players have become increasingly transparent over the years due to newly abused social platforms and so it seems strange that anyone thinks that in an ever gossip obsessed culture that a film can still breakdown any walls to surprise us anthropologically.
Some of the more positive praise for the film describe Maps as a "Hollywood take down" - isn't Hollywood doing that by itself at the moment and existed long enough for us to make our own fun and register it as a long running joke? We certainly don't need a filmmaker of this calibre armed with a half-baked out of touch script to enlighten us that the industry is cut-throat, shallow, abusive, and absurd to the point of hilarity and/or horror.
The Weiss family circle at the heart of the film marks most of the story's twisted reveals and it's here that when focussed that the film works best - but it soon becomes clear that this aspect would be better transposed away from this Hollywood setting. Within this are themes and actions we've come accustomed to the 'Cronenberg project' but even with the recent shift in his work where he seems increasingly interested in individuals consumed or altered by their environments, this LA back drop is rendered useless. When the showbiz aspect is left on the back burner for sections the story it works best as a noirish nightmare of obscene familial secrets and lies. Sunset Blvd will be cited in comparison here but there are shades of noir The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers here, too.
Perhaps it's best to view the film metaphorically as most of Cronenberg's work should be. He paints the film industry as incestuous, always borrowing from the same genes and never evolving or giving life to new material. This is relatable in a time where tent-pole franchises talk and artistry mostly walks. But this is never really the forefront. Even as the incestuous circle at the film's centre cries to be broken it unnecessarily paints privilege as grotesque as if to bring monstrosity below that of the viewer and this is something that Twitter can do on its own now, highlighting further the material being below this director.