The least interesting thing one can say of Maps to the Stars is that it satirizes Hollywood to a greater or lesser degree of success. Set among the vindictive squabbles, pathological careerism, and $18,000 Rodeo Drive shopping binges of various industry operators, the movie uses the Dream Factory as both material and milieu, a double function that needs to be differentiated and examined. The material dimension—Hollywood as the raw stuff of the story—can largely be indexed to Bruce Wagner’s screenplay. First drafted some 20 years ago and based on his experience as a chauffeur for the Beverly Hills Hotel, now updated with zingers pegged to the TMZ–ification of today’s celebrity culture, 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. That’s not to say there aren’t some dark pleasures to be had. For sheer exquisite nastiness you could hardly top a scene that brings the news to Havana Segrand, a flamboyantly insecure actress played with splendid confidence by Julianne Moore, that she has finally landed the feature role she covets in a hot property—quite literally, and with absolute lack of sympathy, over the dead body of a rival actress’s son.
This mordant sequence points to the way Maps works on and through its milieu, by which I mean the ways in which the surface material operates as the vehicle, medium, or staging area for a set of concepts and concerns that antagonize and transcend their local expression. We are, after all, in the hands of David Cronenberg, and if Maps to the Stars takes on a set of topical targets so now they’re immediately dated, and has the insular, airless quality of Hollywood devouring itself, it is also very much the work of an intelligence that estranges everything it touches. To wit: the intricate Oedipal thematic that reverberates out from the intertwined fates of a mysterious, disfigured young woman (Mia Wasikowska) and an outrageously petulant child star (Evan Bird) fresh out of rehab. The slow, strange machinations that twist these two together over the course of the narrative evoke the model of Dead Ringers (88) as much as something like The Player.
Of course, that plotline and thematic derive from Wagner as well, so we can’t quite play the auteurist game of tweezering out the properly “Cronenbergian,” as if this were some supremely isolable substance with no relation to the people with whom Cronenberg works. 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 (05) is no less hallucinated than the “Tangier” of Naked Lunch (91), and the domain of finance capital mapped in Cosmopolis (12) 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.
The topicality of Maps to the Stars is hence of a piece with these general tendencies while also feeling, it must be said, at a distinct remove from its director’s core commitments. But all of this is merely speculative and exploratory. Like all of Cronenberg’s films, especially the outliers, Maps to the Stars will, I suspect, grow richer in time with the receding of its most au courant elements. A “map to the stars” can be two different things: a tacky accessory of celebrity culture, or a diagram of cosmic energy.