For about a decade, between the releases of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink in 1991 and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001, Hollywood loved to mock Hollywood. From The Player to Swimming With Sharks to LA Confidential to Bowfinger, film after film pilloried Los Angeles’s sleaziest and most self-centred denizens. And the more noirish of those films posited that wherever movies were being made, murder and madness weren’t far away. By the time Black Dahlia and For Your Consideration came out in 2006, it seemed that everything that could be said about Tinseltown’s sickness had been said already. But now David Cronenberg – once so transgressive and prescient – is saying it all again in his surreal black comedy Maps to the Stars.
He and his screenwriter, Bruce Wagner, wheel out the usual array of coddled stars and desperate wannabes, New Age healers and cutthroat agents, plus all of the sex, drugs, parties and shopping expeditions that go with them. Mia Wasikowska plays a plain-Jane ingénue from Florida who steps off a coach in Los Angeles at the start of the film. She befriends a limo driver, Robert Pattinson, who is also an aspiring actor and screenwriter, but she seems to be obsessed by an obnoxious 13-year-old star, Evan Bird, who has just come out of rehab. The star’s mother, Olivia Williams, is also his steely manager, while his father, John Cusack, is a therapist who specialises in massaging his undressed clients while encouraging them to relive their past traumas. One of those clients is a fading actress, a blonde Julianne Moore, who hopes to star in a remake of a film which her own mother appeared in. In the meantime, she needs a new personal assistant – or “chore whore”, in her words – so she hires Wasikowska. The other links between the characters are quickly revealed.
Maps to the Stars opens with some droll satirical dialogue: the limo driver wonders whether converting to Scientology would be a good career move, and the therapist praises the Dalai Lama for being “a real pro”. There are also signs that stranger things are afoot: two different characters are being haunted by ghostly visions, and several of them have been affected by incest and fire. But surely no cinema-goers are so naive as to be shocked by Hollywood’s insanity anymore, especially when it’s been portrayed with such brilliance elsewhere. Maps to the Stars is so beholden to Mulholland Drive that you might think you had your Davids mixed up, and that it was made by Lynch rather than Cronenberg. And, despite all the references to Twitter, iPads and The Voice, it feels as it should have been at Cannes 20 years ago.
Maybe even the director and the screenwriter realise that they’re traipsing over thoroughly well-trodden territory, because they don’t seem very interested in their material. The actors have some verve – Moore, in particular, throws herself headlong into her role – but Cronenberg and Wagner can’t muster the same energy or engagement. There’s a clinical detachment to their work which is evident in the soap-opera cinematography, the half-hearted plotting and the contempt with which they treat their characters: Pattinson vanishes well before the end of the film, having played a role which could easily have been cut altogether. The result of all this indifference is that nothing in Maps to the Stars seems to matter. The hauntings don’t scare you, the threats of violence don’t worry you, and the jokes are only vaguely amusing. After all, if the filmmakers aren’t going to get excited by their scenario, even as it gets darker and more demented, then they can hardly expect the audience to get too excited, either.