Chuck Koplinski: 'Maps to the Stars' focuses on damaged, lost

Chuck Koplinski: 'Maps to the Stars' focuses on damaged, lost

It's a bit of an understatement to say that David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars" is not for everyone, but that's par for the course where the director's work is concerned.

Always one to speak his mind, good box office be damned, the filmmaker has built his reputation on pushing viewers to the edge with his extreme visions of man's consciousness being consumed by technology ("Videodrome," "eXistenZ"), the long-term effects violence has on individuals and society ("A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises") and run-of-the-mill obsession ("Dead Ringers," "M. Butterfly").

In a sense you could say that his latest, "Maps to the Stars," is more of the same as it, too, deals with emotionally damaged individuals, nearly all of them doomed to a horrible, inescapable fate simply because they refuse to see themselves as they truly are. That the film takes place among the vacuous and famous of Hollywood is fitting, as much is not what it seems there, never more so than when you're dealing with someone face-to-face. Lies suffuse each conversation, every personal event — particularly tragic ones — must be spun to favorably impact your career and rumors gain credence the more they're repeated.

Every character in "Maps to the Stars" is desperate, damaged or lost, sometimes all three. Middle-aged actress Havana Segrand (a properly manic Julianne Moore) is a bundle of insecurities, literally haunted by her mother (Sarah Gadon), sure that her career is over; self-help guru Stanford Weiss (John Cusack) has made a fortune preying on people like Segrand with his New Age hocus-pocus, making his clients confront their demons, whether they be true or suggested by him; his wife Christina (Olivia Williams) manages their son Benjie (Evan Bird), a 13 year-old child actor who has already been in rehab; Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just gotten out of a mental institution and has come to Hollywood to be reunited with her family, while limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson) is a young actor/writer who is eager to break into the business.

These characters all cross paths at one time or another, sometimes naturally, sometimes in a contrived manner. The script by Bruce Wagner is manipulative, and it may not pass everyone's litmus test for plausibility. However, I was intrigued enough by the emotional train wreck that was developing that I was willing to push aside any concerns just to see how this was all going to be resolved, as the writer places enough well-timed surprises in the story to keep you hooked, though some are truly ridiculous.

Some will object to a taboo issue that's brought up in relation to nearly all of the characters, not only because it's so offensive but also it seems as though it's being used as a blanket excuse for everyone's behavior. However, it is in keeping with and commenting on the current nature of films and television, as well as today's penchant for unbridled honesty. In an effort to gain any sort of publicity, celebrities have no shame in laying bare their most personal secrets and troubles. This practice is so commonplace in "Maps to the Stars," and to a certain extent in real life, that shock value no longer exists. Wagner tries his level best to shake us up, and whether he succeeds or not depends on your own sense of taste and morality.

The irony of the film's title becomes obvious once we meet the characters and determine they have no direction at all. Spinning in their own private worlds, incapable of moving away from events in their past and refusing to look themselves square in the face and deal with their problems, these are people who have allowed themselves to be deluded where their true nature and worth is concerned.

This is hardly exclusive of Hollywood, yet the spotlight it brings to their troubles makes it all that much easier, though we openly deny it, to revel in the schadenfreude of the situation.

After all, isn't that what celebrities and Tinsel Town are for?

'Maps to the Stars' ★★★ (out of 4)

Cast: Julianne Moore, John Cusak, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, Jonathan Watton and Jennifer Gibson.

Directed by David Cronenberg; produced by Said Ben Said, Martin Katz and Michel Merkt; screenplay by Bruce Wagner.

A Focus World Pictures release. 111 minutes. Rated R (strong disturbing violence, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use) At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

'Unfinished Business' fun for all its flaws. (★★★)

I am going to risk such condemnation by saying that I enjoyed Ken Scott's "Unfinished Business."

Note, I said I "enjoyed" it, not that I thought it was a fine piece of filmmaking or that I would necessarily recommend it, simply that I laughed quite a few times while watching this odd 90-minute comedy while recognizing that the word "classic" will never be used to describe it.

This is a "guilty pleasure" if ever there was one. It's confused in intent, it features a respected actor who must have simply wanted to cross "Make a bad movie with Vince Vaughn" off his bucket list, it has an inexplicable character that's borderline offensive and at times contains some of the filthiest things you're likely to see on the big screen this year. Oh, it also contains a heart-warming message about the importance of family as well. Yep, it's a mess, and yet.

Vaughn is Dan Trunkman, a sales associate for a company that specializes in waste metal, and he's tired of being treated like a faceless cog in the machine, particularly by his immediate superior Chuck (Sienna Miller), a driven woman whose ruthless nature suggests she goes out of her way to fit in with the men in her firm.

Pushed to the limit one day, Trunkman quits, declaring he will start his own business and asks anyone who is also fed up to follow him out the door. His "Jerry Maguire" move doesn't work out quite as well as he had hoped as he ends up being saddled with Tim McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), a worn-down associate who has been let go for having the misfortune of being in his 60s, and Mike Pancake (David Franco), a young go-getter who is in his own little world.

Trunkman's dream barely gets off the ground, and a year later, the fate of his business and his two associates all depends on whether or not he can close a big deal, which he's on the verge of doing. Problem is, Chuck shows up at the last minute to put the kibosh on that, and before you know it, the sad-sack trio are headed to Berlin to try to beat her to the punch and pitch their proposal directly to the corporation's big wig.

Of course, madcap adventures ensue as these crude Americans find themselves adrift in a more permissive European society. Meeting a nude client in a co-ed bath house, while they remain attired in business suits, is mild when compared to a later escapade that finds them in a gay nightclub in which Trunkman and Pancake meet strangers by talking to them as they display their wares in well-placed bathroom glory holes.

Oh no, this is not for the meek or anyone with a modicum of good taste, and yet Vaughn's nearly deadpan, smart-aleck response to all this had me laughing loud and often. And while the Pancake character simply doesn't work — is he supposed to be autistic? a savant of some sort? — his improbably naive reaction to the outside world had me chortling as well.

To be sure, I was aware that I was the only one laughing out loud in the theater occupied by five patrons in total, yet that didn't stop me from having a good time. Nor did the heavy-handed anti-bullying message it contained or the ill-conceived happy ending reminding us of the importance of family or the stupid jokes concerning Mike's unfortunate last name.

Perhaps on second viewing, I'll come away feeling differently, but for right now, I have to say I was entertained by "Unfinished Business" despite its flaws. That I might not be able to look at myself in the mirror after making this admission is a private matter I'll come to terms with later.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film
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