March 4, 2019
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Grade: 69/100

Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Agatha Weiss, Evan Bird, Julianne Moore

What it's about. categorizes Maps to the Stars as a comedy and drama. But is by no means a comedy. It is disguised as a drama, but ultimately reveals itself as a horror movie.

The main characters are Havana (Julianne Moore), a wealthy actress who is aging past the peak of her career, and the Weiss family, which consists of self-help media personality Stafford (John Cusack), his sister/wife Christina (Olivia Williams), and their two children, 13-year-old child star Benjie (Evan Bird) and older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). The latter has spent recent years under court supervision after burning down the Weiss home, nearly killing both herself and her brother.

Agatha returns to the Hollywood scene as a personal assistant for the selfish and demanding Havana. Agatha begins a romance with struggling young actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson of the Twilight films). Havana is haunted by the ghost of her mother Clarice (Sarah Gadon), a famous actress who burned to death when Havana was a small child. Benjie is also taunted by ghosts, teenaged cancer victim Cammy (Kiara Glasco) and post=toddler Micah (Domenic Ricci), who drowned in a swimming pool during a moment of parental neglect.

How others will see it. Movies are typically made to make money. To do so, a movie must have an audience, and it becomes important to please that audience. It is hardly unusual for a film to change its ending following a preview where the current ending tests poorly.

Generally speaking, audiences want the main characters to be likable and act with integrity. Audiences want said characters to succeed, by defeating their enemies and/or sealing a romantic relationship. An exception arises if the leads are villainous, such as Al Pacino in Scarface, in which case their much-deserved comeuppance provides closure.

Maps to the Stars was clearly made with indifference to audience testing. The audience asks, who should we identify with? The arrogant and rude child actor? The selfish and shallow aging actress? The self-help guru who can't even manage his own life relationships?

Hope arises in the form of a budding romance between the vulnerable Agatha and hunky Jerome. But after teasing us with its promise, the film ends the romance abruptly, and Agatha loses all sympathy with the murder of her employer, and her obsession of completing a suicide pact with her troubled younger brother.

In the end, the only character we work up any sympathy for is Christina, the increasingly anguished mother to her two disturbed children. But she has a small role, and she ends poorly, as do all of the leads.

Thus it is unsurprising that a downer like Maps to the Stars was a box office disappointment, and has a user rating of only 6.2 (out of 10) at Women over 45 bestow a grade of just 5.8. One user review calls it "painful to watch," which few could disagree with.

It is true that critical buzz, a good cast, and a name director have at least achieved about 35K user votes. For those willing to face its indictment of Hollywood, they will at least have seen a movie with accomplishments on the festival circuit: a Golden Globe nod and Best Actress at Cannes for Julianne Moore, and a whopping 11 nominations from the Canadian Screen Awards.

How I felt about it. Of all things, Maps to the Stars reminds me of Scarlet Street (1945), a creepy film noir I also graded 69. That film also has ghosts and unexpected murders, but most significantly, has a completely pessimistic assessment of our species. In its review, I wrote that Scarlet Street was "practically an indictment of humanity." At least Maps to the Stars limits its censure to the Hollywood culture.