It’s been a few days since I saw David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, screening here in competition, and I’m still not completely sure what I think of this sometimes-smart, sometimes-arch ultra-black comedy about shallow Hollywood types. But one thing’s for sure: Julianne Moore is a knockout in it.
Moore stars as Havana Segrand, a Hollywood actress in desperate decline. Her hair is bleached an ungodly shade of nowhere blonde; she’s just had to fire her personal assistant, or, as she puts it, her “chore whore,” and now faces the irksome task of finding another. The parts aren’t rolling in as frequently as they used to, so she’s frantically hoping she can play her own late, movie-star mother (who sexually abused her, natch) in a remake of her mom’s big hit, despite the fact that she might be just a teensy bit over the hill for it.
Meanwhile, a waifish burn victim with a scarred face, Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha has just rolled into town from Florida, and the first person she meets is a loping charmer of a limo driver, Robert Pattinson’s Jerome Fontana, who also happens to be an aspiring actor. Oh, and a screenwriter — whatever works. Agatha lands that job as Havana’s assistant, but it soon becomes apparent that she has a secret past, which involves spoiled teen movie star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird).
If it all sounds like too much, plotwise, it is. The screenplay was written by Hollywood satirist Bruce Wagner, whose work suggests he thinks he’s much funnier and sharper than he is. Perhaps, in molding the raw material, Cronenberg has given the picture as much shape and heft as he can. But he’s graceful in navigating the movie’s tricky tone shifts, from genially satirical to misanthropically acidic. And when Maps to the Stars clicks, it’s great fun. The obvious comparison is to Robert Altman’s The Player, but Cronenberg’s approach is a little more sly, and drier, than Altman’s: At its best Maps to the Stars reminds me more of the unjustly forgotten 1994 The New Age, a bitter little bonbon written and directed by Michael Tolkin (who also wrote The Player, both screenplay and novel), about Southern California types looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places.
Whenever Moore’s on-screen — which, thankfully, is often — Maps to the Stars works like gangbusters. Moore is a terrific and fearless comic actress: She does one scene perched on the toilet, moaning to Agatha through the open door about how “backed up” she is by whatever this-or-that she’s been taking, and would Agatha run to the store and pick up a little something to help? “I think it’s called Quiet Moment,” she says, and the more she natters, the longer her shopping list gets, expanding to include tampons and sweets from Maison du Chocolat (“You can get them at Nieman’s”), an unholy combination if ever there was one.
But even with all that brassy hair, and arranged not-so-gracefully on the can, Moore never looks totally trashy, and her radiant dignity just makes everything funnier. In another scene, she turns an account of meeting one of the world’s great spiritual dignitaries into an ace humblebrag. “I met the Dalai Lama,” she says, nodding and taking a breath before zoning in on the kicker: “Very cool man.” Moore, perched on her throne or not, is the queen of all she surveys in Maps to the Stars. You’ll laugh until you find yourself needing a…Quiet Moment.
Tommy Lee Jones’ second feature as director, The Homesman, screening here in competition, starts out with great promise: Hilary Swank plays Nebraska pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy, who owns lots of land, knows how to play the piano (even though she doesn’t own one — she’s stitched up a little quilted keyboard that has to suffice), and can cook a fine, nutritious meal with vegetables she’s grown herself. The only thing she doesn’t have is a husband, and, well, even a plucky pioneer woman gets lonely. Still, there are more important things for her to worry about: Three women in the community have suddenly, or gradually, gone mad, taking to doing things like tossing their newborn babes down the outhouse hole. Someone must drive these women, in a little wooden wagon, to a church in Iowa, whence they’ll be sent back to their families back East. The men of the community hold a drawing to see who will take on this dangerous task, but you can see how lukewarm they are about it. Mary Bee ends up volunteering for the assignment, roping a grizzled old claim jumper (Jones) into accompanying her.
Westerns are relatively rare these days, and for the first two-thirds or so, The Homesman has a lot going for it: It’s been beautifully shot (by Rodrigo Prieto), and the mere idea of a woman-centric western is intriguing. But The Homesman breaks faith with the audience via a surprise twist that makes no sense, given what we’ve come to learn about a certain character. The flaw may lie with the source material (by novelist Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist and Bless the Beasts and Children), but even so, Jones doesn’t lay out enough illuminating bread crumbs to make this shockeroo turnabout work. In the end, The Homesman isn’t so much about the derring-do of one brave plainswoman as it is about Jones’ hopping up and down on creaky knees, yee-hawing like a live-action Yosemite Sam. Swank’s performance is subtle and perceptive, as far as it goes, but who can compete with a hootin,’ hollerin’ cartoon?