David Cronenberg is one of the undisputed masters of the Hollywood body horror movement. He knows how to emphasize the grotesqueries of the human form to make points about the human condition and just generally wig us out. However, Maps to the Stars is a change of pace for Cronenberg, as his focus shifts to a direct analysis of the souls of Hollywood denizens, and the parallels he draws are problematic to say the least. And yet, when his film hits the mark, it does a decent enough job, even if the insights he portrays are nothing new in criticisms of Hollywood culture.
The cast of characters is representative of relevantly modern Hollywood archetypes: the aging infantile actress who cannot live up to her mother’s black-and-white era acclaim (Julianne Moore, who has just been on a roll lately); a child star who has been morphed into a drug-abusive, egomaniacal bully; a mentally ill personal assistant whose history has been swept under the rug by parents with celebrity-adjacent careers too important to lose. The performances are well executed and nuanced, and what emerges is a tale of children, whether they be literal or simply emotionally stunted adults. All of these children are subject to abuse in one way or another, an abuse that is allegorical to how Hollywood’s allure of money and fame has the capability to destroy a person’s capacity for empathy or decency, thereby perpetuating a system of abuse.
This type of story has been told before, but never with Cronenberg’s overt attraction to the grotesque. However, his attention is drawn in problematic ways this time. While his characters’ tendency to see the literal ghosts of their pasts rings a little trite, their compulsive attraction toward incest is new, yet has subtext that I find more than a little disquieting. Much of the film’s portrayal of incestuous relationships is within the context of child abuse: a rapist stepfather, advantage taken over a mental ill sister, various other instances of interpersonal violence that creates the Hollywood cast of damaged humanity. And while those instances of abuse are demonstrative of the point the film is trying to make, I take issue with the film’s assumption that incest itself is a producer of inbred psychopathy. Two of the film’s characters are the admitted product of a consensual sexual relationship between siblings, and the film seems to point to that as a reason for its characters’ doomed psyches, as if they were denied a chance to be healthy by virtue of their very existence. Though this makes an adequate point about the chance for normalcy that child stars have in the Hollywood system, it paints an unfair portrait of children of incest that makes me more than a little uneasy.
That major issue aside, however, Maps to the Stars is an adequate enough film for what it is trying to accomplish. Stabs at Hollywood excess and cloistered idiocy are nothing new, and Cronenberg’s disgust with the human condition is nothing new, but putting the two together provides for a unique spin on an old product. Some of its philosophical underpinnings are, in this critic’s opinion, fundamentally flawed, but taking the film’s premises on abuse as true makes it thematically rich and overall pretty decent. I would just encourage viewers to keep in mind that despite the film’s conflations, abuse and incest are not inherently analogous, and treating the human products of incest as inherently damaged is dehumanizing, even when making a point by analogy.