Star Maps was a hit at Sundance this year; Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of 20th Century-Fox, scooped it up for big bucks (by indie standards) hours after its festival premiere. On paper you can see why: All the distributor has to do is list the ingredients and art-house attention is assured. From the sex (confused at best, degraded at worst) to a brutal patriarchal villain to a multicultural ambience, this movie seems to have been geared to create deep post-screening conversations instead of authentic emotions. Art theaters may actually fare less well with it than the coffee shops next door. First-time writer/director Miguel Arteta drops a dysfunctional-family melodrama into a heated-up L.A. milieu and serves it up with a Latino accent, a rock en Espanol soundtrack, and a tad of magic realism. Everything fresh is sprinkled on the surface. It's the story of a Mexican-American lad who works as a bisexual hooker for his pimp father under the guise of selling maps to Hollywood stars' homes. But what Carlos really wants to be is a movie star like Antonio Banderas. Despite its aggressive contemporaneity, Star Maps' roots go way back to the Gothic domestic nightmares of Tennessee Williams. At one point, addressing an actress client, Carlos quotes from Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth: "Princess, the great difference between people in this world is not between the rich and the poor or the good and the evil, the biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that have or had pleasure in love and those that haven't and hadn't any pleasure in love." Nobody in this movie has or had any pleasure in love -- the closest anyone comes is the would-be star's mentally broken-down mom, who has a satisfying imaginary relationship with the late Mexican comedy star Cantinflas. Yet the pathos (as in bad Williams) is woefully florid and pleading.
This is the kind of household psychodrama that keeps you wondering why the characters with any potential don't just pack up and leave. The mother sent Carlos, played by Douglas Spain, to his grandparents in Mexico, precisely to separate him from his brutish father, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), who operates a whole ring of boys selling maps and themselves. At the film's start, Carlos returns to L.A. after two years, telling his virtuous, caring sister Maria (Lysa Flores) that he'll work for his dad only until he gains entree into show biz. He gets it, thanks to Jenny (Kandeyce Jorden), a randy soap-opera star who has him written into her show as a Mexican gardener. But he's afraid to run out on his father until his new career is assured. Meanwhile, Maria tends to Mom and tries to ignore both Pepe and her bovine brother Juancito (Vincent Chandler), who spends a lot of time sunning himself in a wrestler's get-up of leggings and a ski mask.
Arteta belongs to the is-this-for-real? school of dramaturgy. He lays out all this outrageous stuff in a manner too hyped-up to be matter-of-fact and too clammy to be titillating. The result is the dramatic equivalent of taunting. Instead of conjuring any actual suspense, he snags viewers' curiosity by withholding simple explanations for what makes his outre characters tick. The whole movie is a series of letdowns: Every turning point hinges on contrivance or cliche. Jenny and Carlos' relationship is blithe enough that I thought the film's attitude toward hustling and breaking into Hollywood might be refreshingly realistic -- after all, anyone who's spent time in Tinseltown has heard stories of macho stars advancing their careers by hustling straight women and gay men. (And Carlos really does seem to want to be an actor, even if Arteta makes it impossible to gauge his -- or Spain's -- talent.) But Arteta has a way of seeming daring and nonjudgmental while peddling age-old pieties. He shapes the incidents melodramatically and (ultimately) moralistically -- he makes Carlos liberate himself from his father and from show biz simultaneously. At every step of this narrative arc, the audacity is only skin-deep. For example, Pepe enlists his lover and aide-de-camp, Letti (Annette Murphy), to keep Carlos in line. When Pepe sends the two of them out together, to make love in front of a May-December couple in need of inspiration, it turns into a tender moment. Yet for all the semi-incestuous riskiness of the scene, Letti falls back into the stereotype of the whore with a heart of gold.
What brings out her sympathy is that Carlos has a picturesque, Kodak-catatonic moment -- in fact, he has one whenever he freaks out and circles back to a traumatic memory of Pepe beating him as a child. These catatonic interludes, along with Carlos' jarring fantasies of fame and glory, some impressionistic smears of the cityside, and a few sardonic TV-writer bits that are ersatz-Larry Sanders, help Arteta vary the grinding inevitability of the family's descent into disaster. But mixing in manic and absurdist moments isn't a way of releasing the power of the material, but of playing the audience for suckers. As a moviemaker, Arteta already has his hustle down pat.