David Cronenberg does Hollywood as only he can in “Maps to the Stars,” a pitch-black, ultra-violent, darkly comic satire dripping with acid. It’s a Hollywood horror story designed to equally intrigue and repel.
“Maps” makes tinseltown satires like Robert Altman’s “The Player” (brilliant) and David Mamet’s “State and Main” (not so brilliant) seem like “Singin’ in the Rain” by comparison. Its closest cousin is probably David Lynch’s masterful “Mulholland Drive,” a frightening experience similarly obsessed with the crossover between celebrity dreams and showbiz nightmares.
Fans of Cronenberg entries like “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “Crash” will find much to chew on here. “Maps to the Stars” is one of his most sickly compelling films, but certainly not easily digestible as the more thematically straightforward likes of “The Fly” or “Eastern Promises.”
“Sickly compelling” describes virtually every character, especially post-rehab teen idol Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), an entitled monster with a doting mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), and a well-known television psychologist father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack).
One of Weiss’ clients is aging movie star Havana Segrand (a simultaneously fragile and combustible Julianne Moore), still dealing with the abuses inflicted upon her by her late mother, also an actress. Havana is haunted – literally – by a younger version of her mother.
Into this strange milieu enters Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a mousey, scarred young woman with an unhealthy obsession with the rich and famous, and, specifically, Benjie. Agatha forms a connection with Jerome (a nicely understated Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and struggling actor.
It becomes clear that Agatha has a connection with the Weiss family, and also that she is utterly unhinged. But so is Benjie. And so is Stafford Weiss. And so are Cristina and Havana, and almost every character in the film minus Jerome.
Agatha is hired as Havana’s personal assistant, thanks to an intro from Carrie Fisher (humorously playing herself), and between picking up Havana’s pills and to her duties, begins to inject herself into Benjie’s sphere.
The deeper Agatha goes, the more things detonate, leading to a series of bloody, emotionally piercing events. In Cronenberg’s Hollywood, nothing ends well, and any victories arrive only as a result of someone else’s misfortune.
The character who most embodies the film’s star-eat-star aesthetic is feverishly narcissistic young Benjie, the most memorable movie brat to saunter on screen in some time. Actor Evan Bird makes this Justin Bieber-by-way-of-“American Psycho” character Patrick Bateman believably damaged, and even vulnerable.
Wasikowska excels at vulnerability, and she, too, has created a character that feels completely original. Cusack has his best role in years, and nails it in spite of the character’s rather clichéd occupation. (Think Dr. Phil meets Tony Robbins.)
But newly crowned Oscar winner Moore steals the picture. Her performance is appropriately over-the-top, and devilishly wise. This is an individual who celebrates the death of a rival’s child, delights in seduction, and teeters on the precipice of insanity.
If it all sounds a bit silly and sadistic, it is. And a few moments simply don’t connect. But the genius of Cronenberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed novelist) Bruce Wagner is that it almost is always car-crash watchable and even, at times, relatable. To Canada’s greatest filmmaker, Hollywood is lined with corpses and inundated with the ghosts of past sins (and sinners), and those of us on the outside can only gawk.
“Maps to the Stars” is another fascinating entry in Cronenberg’s ever-unpredictable career. In recent years, the Canadian auteur has helmed films about a young billionaire forever lodged in his limo (“Cosmopolis”) and the friendship-rivalry between Freud and Jung (“A Dangerous Method”), seen a handsome exhibition focused on his work at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, and written his first novel (“Consumed”).
His latest film is not a Cronenberg classic, but it is a very solid addition to his résumé. And in Benjie and Havana, we have characters as memorably icky on the inside as Seth Brundle of “The Fly” is on the outside.
Maps To the Stars
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director: David Cronenberg
Running time: 112 minutes
Rating: R for strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material.
The Lowdown: A story of Hollywood celebrities and the ghosts of the past, centered around a wealthy, fractured family and an aging actress.