There are two types of films about Hollywood. The first and most overused type is the “Hollywood saves the day” picture, a self-aggrandising trope used by filmmakers for the sole basis of winning awards from the back-slapping folk at the Academy. Nothing merits Oscars more than a film about the sheer wonder of Hollywood; why else would a film as average as Argo be named anybody’s favourite film of the year, let alone the decisive Best Picture?
The second type of film about Hollywood is the far better “Hollywood is full of sycophants” picture, ranging from the dark comedy of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to the sheer paranoid confusions of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. There are only so many ways Hollywood can congratulate itself on how brilliant it is – the ways in which it can be sent up and mercilessly satirised are infinite. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars instantly ranks as one of the best films about the corrupt evil of Hollywood, as well as one of the best films he’s ever made. He may have long since abandoned the “body-horror” with which he made his name in the 70’s and 80’s, yet this is the biggest nightmare he’s ever created, with the biggest shocks coming from how hard you will laugh at some of the repulsive dialogue.
The film has a sprawling ensemble plot (it’s no coincidence Bruce Wagner’s screenplay namechecks P.T Anderson) with no clear central performance – any one of these characters could conceivably be the lead. Julianne Moore gives one of her best performances as Havana Segrand, a fading actress who is concentrating her efforts on getting a role in a remake of a film her mother won awards for in the 70’s; her mother burnt to death in a house fire when she was young, leading to severe delusions as she is being taunted for her own mediocre career from the afterlife. Any other actress would play this role as histrionically as possible, yet Moore manages to make this larger than life character seem believable, even if the screenplay calls for her to violently attempt to relieve constipation or take perverse delight in the death of a friend’s child. If this role was played with only the slightest amount of difference, we would be firmly within Showgirls territory – this is the closest the film has to a central performance and if it was played in an overly-campy way it would derail the entire project as a result. As it stands, Moore’s performance deserves the Oscar nomination that her character so perversely craves. It’s just a shame it’s in a film that will never be given the Academy seal of approval.
Havana also pays repeat trips to a seedy therapist played by John Cusack, whose methods of therapy involve physical pain and emotional torture. He is the leader of the Weiss family; his thirteen year old son Benjie (Evan Bird) is an Bieber-esque movie star who is recovering from the drug addiction he’d had a year earlier (12 year olds these days, eh?) and happily sleeps with an alarming amount of adult “starfuckers” despite being a minor. Thrown into this mix is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who has a connection to the Weiss’ family past and gets a job as Havana’s housemaid due to being mutual friends with Carrie Fisher, who I imagine is the only celebrity who jumped at the chance to play themselves in such a savage satire. Agatha has a developing relationship with an aspiring actor/limo driver played by Robert Pattinson. He is the only seemingly nice person in the film – meaning he will obviously get corrupted by Hollywood’s wicked ways by the time the end credits roll.
Of these performances, it pains me to say that Cusack is by far the weakest. Whereas everybody else underplays or fine tunes their roles with a sense of emotional detachment befitting their characters, Cusack chews the scenery to the extent that you imagine he needed to take a trip to the dentist once filming had wrapped. This isn’t to say his performance is bad by any means; just that it very obviously clashes with the more nuanced performances the other actors give that helped me believe in and get actively repulsed by the hedonism on show, as well as their constantly deteriorating mental states.
I wrote recently about how one of the central reasons I didn’t like brit-flick The Riot Club was because the debauched behaviour was presented in a boring way. The behaviour here is similarly boring, but that’s because Cronenberg films everything with a sense of detachment. If a common criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street was that Scorsese seemed to be revelling in the excess, here Cronenberg similarly shows EVERYTHING – and he couldn’t be less interested. The behaviour of the characters is as alien to him and the audience as the car crash fetishists of Crash and the sadomasochistic underground TV stations of Videodrome. Like those films, a completely engrossing film has been made out of something so emotionally detached. If it dared to involve the audience, this film would be banned.
Cronenberg has made a nightmare for the ages; you’ll be repulsed, yet the constantly funny screenplay from Bruce Wagner and an almost uniformly perfect cast help overcome that. Strange as it may sound, this is one of the most enjoyable films of the year.