Part of the reason David Cronenberg’s new Maps to the Stars is so engrossing is that it’s two kinds of movie at once. The surface is all brutal Hollywood satire, the child star who only eats red Skittles and the washed-up actress demanding that her assistant fetch her Xanax and Kozy Shack pudding. This stuff is breathtaking: the massage therapist who helps his scantily-clad clients work through child abuse (“I’m going to press on a personal history point now”), the hateful cheek-kissing and the jaded, foul-mouthed tweens.
But all of that satire is in the service of another kind of movie. Maps to the Stars is a ghost movie, both literally and figuratively. Slowly its weirdnesses, its hallucinations and catchphrases, start to focus on one central concern: How do we free ourselves from the past?
The film is set in a Hollywood abjectly obeisant before its own past. No fully original work gets made: The two films we see in production are a sequel (Bad Babysitter 2) and a remake (or “reimagining”) of Stolen Waters, a black-and-white classic which seems to be The Snake Pit crossed with Splendor in the Grass. Agatha’s (Mia Wasikowska) first actions upon arriving in Los Angeles are pilgrimages. First she visits the abandoned site where the Weiss family house burned down, then heads to Hollywood Boulevard to kiss the sidewalk star dedicated to Stolen Waters’s long-dead lead. Slowly Agatha’s connections to the Weiss family (patriarch John Cusack, shaky maternal cigarette Olivia Williams, and evil-Bieber child Evan Bird) and to Stolen Waters reveal themselves as she journeys through a haunted Hollywood.
Everyone in Maps to the Stars is trapped, not only by their own past crimes but by those of their parents. All of their clutching, transparent ploys for affirmation and esteem, which we’re encouraged to laugh at, prove incapable of liberating them. The self-help gurus (Cusack’s Stafford Weiss is not only a massage therapist but a post-Christian televangelist, hosting the “Hour of Personal Power”), the psychiatric medications, the Schedules I through IV controlled substances; getting the job, getting clean and sober; none of it helps.
This is the most scathing portrayal of 12-Step recovery I’ve ever seen in a movie. “No one escapes the long arm of 12-Step,” Stafford Weiss sighs at one point. Agatha deploys her recovery-speak to get what she wants: “We’re both dual-diagnosis,” she chirps, explaining how she befriended Carrie Fisher, and not all of her attempts to “make amends” are selfless. Regardless of her motives, the movie hammers on its central message: None of this helps.
Alcoholics Anonymous promises that spiritual surrender, including the making of amends where possible, will help its practitioners become “happy, joyous, and free.” But even the most recovery-drenched characters in this film are miserable captives. The only positive emotion they regularly experience is a sour, acrid glee. The scene where Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) dances around her patio with Agatha, singing, “This is for Micah!” to celebrate the death of a rival actress’s little son, is one of those jaw-dropping moments where you laugh in shock.
Maps to the Stars is a funny, gross movie, with more than a little sleaze. (Someday I hope filmmakers will learn how to portray degradation without committing it.) It’s quotable:
“When’s the audition?”
“It’s not an audition.”
“Oh right. When’s the urine test?”
Or Stafford, psychiatrizing: “I don’t believe in rewarding homicidal behavior.”
Ditto, on repentance: “Worst-case, I go on Oprah again, do the whole Lance Armstrong thing. That’ll open up a fresh money-stream.”
But under all that tinsel there are these recurring images: the ghosts/hallucinations of dead children; the specter of incest; seeing oneself in someone else (Havana tells Agatha: “I think you’re beautiful. And you know who looks just like you? Havana Segrand”); children reading scripts written by adults; death by fire and by water. (Nothing helps. Even opposite elements have the same devastating effect.) The leafless, fruitless trees inside the new Weiss family home.
A lot of movies make the case that success is its own kind of shackle. Fewer movies attempt a programmatic attack on every kind of solace or freedom the characters seek. This is a terribly funny film—about the kids in the Auden poem:
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
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