Have you heard about that plastic kingdom of the damned, Hollywood? It runs on antidepressants and New Age spiritual hooey. The movie stars are vapid, narcissistic fame whores. The young ones are even worse—spoiled child tyrants with filthy mouths and insatiable appetites. And the studio heads, the people bankrolling these hacks and phony monsters? They’re only interested in money, which they’ll earn by sequelizing and remaking and milking dry every successful property they can get their hands on.
This major newsflash comes courtesy of Maps To The Stars (Grade: C), David Cronenberg’s broad and aggressively obvious La La Land satire. The film screened for the press last night, vomiting ancient anti-Hollywood clichés all over the Lumière Theatre. There were plenty eager to lap them up: The campaign to hand Cronenberg the Palme commenced with the crawl of the credits, critics taking to Twitter to declare the film a masterpiece. But what fresh insight could be gleaned from the movie’s parade of vacuous, pill-popping celebrity ghouls? Perhaps the defenders are simply responding to the movie’s sheer outrageousness; like Pulp Fiction, which won Cannes 20 years ago, it does have an energy its competition mostly lacks.
Though the publicity blitz has emphasized Maps To The Stars as Cronenberg’s second collaboration with pinup-boy muse Robert Pattinson, the actor has a much smaller role here than he did in Cosmopolis. Climbing from the back of the limousine to the front, Pattinson plays a hired chauffeur and our entryway into the film’s inner circle of toxically privileged protagonists. There’s 13-year-old Benjie (Evan Bird), a Bieberesque child star fresh out of rehab, and his parents, self-help guru Stafford (John Cusack) and stage mother Christina (Olivia Williams). Into the film dances Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a starry-eyed Florida transport who hides her scar tissue behind thick black clothes. She gets a job as the personal assistant of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a desperate actress trying to land the lead in a remake of a 1960s romance—the role originated by her famous mother, who died in a fire when she was still a young woman. Moore suffers the most abuse, her character the butt of scatological gags and the recipient of numerous humiliations. (For point of reference, see Catherine O’Hara in the final scenes of For Your Consideration, to which this is essentially a vulgar cousin.)
Maps To The Stars draws plentiful parallels between its characters, many of whom are haunted by both figurative and literal ghosts. Incest, too, is a major theme, presumably to underline how… incestuous the town is. The film is penned by Bruce Wagner, whose inside-industry novels must boast more trenchant wisdom than what he provides here. The fake studio projects feel, well, fake: Benjie’s hit franchise, Bad Babysitter, is basically a preteen Porky’s—a first-draft idea, and nothing like what his real-life, Disney Channel counterparts would appear in. As for the actual celebrity allusions, they’re like something out of Entourage; easy potshots are taken at such familiar targets as Harvey Weinstein. The irony, perhaps intentional, is that such jokes could play great to a crowd of actual Hollywood insiders (though that was true of Altman’s The Player, too). The movie is as shallow as its characters.
Cronenberg’s “Hollywood” is as deliberately artificial as the “small-town America” of his A History Of Violence, but to what end? The latter strove to say something mythic about the nature of the national character, whereas Maps To The Stars simply wraps truisms in a blanket of strangeness. Not that the director is phoning it in: Working with his longtime crew, the director cranks up the nightmare fuel during a few key scenes of sex and violence. (I got a rush of recognition during one shot of Williams sobbing in a pod-like bathtub designed by Carol Spier, to the ominous ambience of Howard Shore’s music.) But Cosmopolis, with its alien rhetoric and doomsday projections, was much more the Canadian auteur’s speed. Here, he seems to be channeling David Lynch channeling Richard Kelly—fascinating, maybe, but in most of the wrong ways.
Mood is also integral to Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (Grade: C+), an interesting but ultimately simplistic attempt to make sense of a senseless act. I didn’t know much about the film’s true story going in; those who want to experience it the same way should check out here, as it’s difficult to discuss the movie without getting into its endgame. The event in question is the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by wealthy sponsor John Du Pont. Though a motive was never established by police or in the courts, Miller’s movie speculates that it was severe insecurity and a warped sense of entitlement that drove Du Pont to open fire on his star athlete. Foxcatcher unfolds chiefly from the perspective of Schultz’s brother Mark (Channing Tatum), also an Olympic athlete, who’s convinced by the eventual perpetrator to move to his vast Pennsylvania estate to train under the banner of “Team Foxcatcher.” Du Pont (Steve Carell) fancies himself a mentor figure, but although he’s more than willing to take Mark under his wing, it’s the more accomplished older brother (Mark Ruffalo) that he really wants on the team.
Miller lent his last movie, Moneyball, an aura of melancholy, appropriate for a tale of disappointment. He tweaks that atmosphere here, adding an undercurrent of simmering unease. Foxcatcher is compelling enough as a pure mood piece, and there’s something ineffably moving about the sight of Tatum and Ruffalo locked in competitive embrace, as though their training were a pure extension of their sibling relationship. (The film is a bit like the excellent Warrior in that way.) But psychologically speaking, it never quite convinces. Mark is presented as a hunk of resentments, unable to escape the shadow of his world-champ brother, while Du Pont is depicted as a fickle benefactor, with wrestling as a pet interest meant to compensate for his mother’s glaring disappointment. The aim is Shakespearean tragedy, with Du Pont as the Iago figure. But the script doesn’t cut very deep into these characters, and Miller is forced to dramatize their conflict by drowning it in muted colors and piano plinks.
Carell, meanwhile, overdoes the aristocratic creep routine. Outfitted with what looks like a prosthetic nose, he seems vaguely unhinged from the start; one has to wonder why Mark doesn’t turn and flee from the room during their first meeting. The one-time Office star surely landed the role by demonstrating that he can be a clueless, desperately uncool boss. His best moments in Foxcatcher have a faintly comedic, Michael Scott vibe, as when he attempts to demonstrate basic wrestling moves to a group of athletes who are far beyond that. (The film’s very best scene finds David, who Du Pont has finally convinced to move to the compound, struggling to call the man a “mentor” on camera. Ruffalo, as always, is terrific.) But as if fearful that he’ll come across as too doofy, Carell turns Du Pont into a leering, stilted gargoyle. And as a result, Foxcatcher never gets into the man’s head, where the true drama lies.