Comparing David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars with Ari Folman’s Hollywood satire The Congress is an effective demonstration of how originality and quality don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Of the two films, The Congress is far and away the most original, draping an overabundance of ideas offer a scaffolding constructed out of equal parts live action and animation. The film takes place in the near-future, where film studios have introduced mapping technology that allows them to own an actor’s identity and image: once the contract is signed and the image is taken, actors can be accurately modelled by computers to perform in whatever role the studio desires, with no input from the actor.
The actor in question is Robin Wright or, rather, “Robin Wright”, star of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump who, in this universe, has apparently made a series of poor decisions (clearly, Netflix never chose to produce House of Cards here). Motivated by the advice of her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel) and the worsening illness of her son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Wright signs away her identity to “Miramount” (subtle, guys), and her computer-generated self becomes a popular sci-fi/action movie star and, eventually, as technology progresses, a popular choice of assumed identity twenty years later, as the movie shifts into an animated “Looney Tunes playground.”
There’s no denying that a great deal of thought has been put into the framework of The Congress; unfortunately, that’s overly apparent in the dialogue, which frequently and frustratingly makes subtext text. The ideas here are very contemporary, what with Hollywood blockbusters trending more and more towards animation (how often do you think Robert Downey Jr is actually acting in the MCU films, and how often is it a computer-generated image of him, for example?), and with corporations legitimately owning some celebrity’s identities (Tiger Woods couldn’t use his own name for a restaurant recently, because Nike owns his name).
But the problem with The Congress is that it seems to be unable to develop those ideas into a compelling film. It’s not a bad film, necessarily, but its best elements are divorced from its concepts. The scene where Wright breaks into tears in a sphere of flashing cameras is ambiguous and moving and interesting. It’s tied into the film’s themes of performance, artificiality and the like … but is somewhat trampled over by the bluntness of Keitel’s monologue, delivered in a monotone that makes its clear he’s phoning it in. Wright, thankfully, puts in sterling work. The animation of the second half is undeniably wonderful, but its wacky charm has nothing to do with the film’s allegorical aspects.
Maps to the Stars is nowhere near as ambitious as The Congress. It drifts through a web of familiar elements: Mia Wasikowska plays a murderously obsessive young woman, à la All About Eve, while the subject of her obsession, Havana (Julianne Moore), is an over-the-hill actress, à la Sunset Boulevard (or The Congress). There’s also a maturing child star (Evan Bird) who is, of course, intensely solipsistic. Cronenberg doesn’t regard the film as a satire, describing it as “too realistic to be satire” in an interview with The Dissolve, but for an outsider like myself, it’s hard to imagine real people acting as they do here.
Cronenerg’s film is nonetheless quite similar to Folman’s, with each presenting a deeply pessimistic portrait of modern commercial filmmaking, and each executed in a style that’s markedly distinct from the screenplay. Where Folman offsets the rigid bluntness of his screenplay with loose, hallucinatory animation, Cronenberg plays against the comedic tone of Bruce Wagner’s script by adopting his trademark cold, distancing aesthetic. But despite the freshness of the ideas found within The Congress, Maps to the Stars is by far the better picture, in large part thanks to the disconnect between tone and story (and, it must be said, the quality of its cast; Folman has Wright, but Cronenberg has a much deeper bench).
Maps to the Stars doesn’t have anything especially new to say, yet its approach emphasises the selfish vacuity of its characters; the script wants us to laugh at them, but the film makes us pity them. In the vein of much of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, it plays more like a horror than a comedy. Folman, meanwhile, only draws attention to the brusque clumsiness of his own writing with his vacant-slash-absurdist approach. If the originality of his ideas had been embedded deep within The Congress, rather than littered across its surface, it could have easily eclipsed the familiarity of Maps to the Stars. Instead, it comes across a compelling pitch for a film rather a coherent final product.