So here’s a mean, nasty little piece of work — and I have a feeling director David Cronenberg would take that as the compliment it’s intended to be. Maps to the Stars is part vicious Hollywood satire, part portrait of horrifying dysfunction, and part (no kidding) Greek mythology. Early on, I found myself jotting down echoes and influences: The Player, Douglas Sirk, Mulholland Drive, Cronenberg’s own Cosmopolis. At some point, I stopped playing connect-the-dots, because that’s missing the point: you can trace its genealogy all you want, but at the end of the day, Maps is its own, utterly deranged thing.
The screenplay, by Bruce Wagner (who penned Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which could almost work as a subtitle to this movie), concerns a loosely connected group of stars and star-fuckers in modern Tinseltown. Our portal in is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives shortly after the fade-up with stars in her eyes and vague connections to Carrie Fisher and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13-year-old movie star who’s already done a stint in rehab. Benjie’s considerable messes are cleaned up by his ruthless stage mother (Olivia Williams) and his father (John Cusack), author of a Secret-like tome and practitioner of a peculiar brand of pseudo-sexual massage psychotherapy. One of his star clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a one-time ingénue now struggling for relevance, and campaigning desperately to play a role originated by her mother (Sarah Gadon), whose ghost is currently haunting her at inopportune moments. Havana is looking for a new personal assistant, so she hires Agatha on Carrie Fisher’s recommendation, thus bringing the cast full circle (although Robert Pattinson also floats in occasionally, as an actor/writer/chauffeur, now on the other side of the limo glass from his character in Cosmopolis).
Though his films usually include at least flashes of dark humor, Maps is probably the closest thing he’s made to a comedy — it’s a really funny picture, if you’re a sick enough fuck to laugh at it. (Guilty!) This isn’t one of those inside-“Hollywood” movies that takes place in some kind of alternate universe; Wagner’s script gleefully names names and seems to settle scores, all the while winkingly dramatizing the kind of bad behavior that TMZ and The Enquirer could only dream of. Cronenberg’s got a screwy sense of comic timing; in his dialogue scenes, he gets the laugh from the line, then gets another one from the odd way he’ll hold afterwards or cut to a peculiar reaction. In spots, he seems to be deliberately courting campiness, but he’s too cool a customer to telegraph it obviously.
His primary comic weapon is Julianne Moore, who plays her paranoid falling star as a cross between Norma Desmond and Madonna (“I met the Dali Lama, he’s a very cool person,” she assures her new assistant). She’s an absolute monster, and it’s a wickedly entertaining performance — and a seemingly self-aware one to boot. Her frequent crying jags almost seem a send-up of her own image, but she still manages to dig out the character’s withered, broken humanity. Aside from Moore, the film’s most memorable performance is that of Jon Cusack, whose recent run of worrisome choices indicate someone who made the mistake of taking career advice from occasional co-star Nicolas Cage. Yet it takes hearing his matter-of-fact, snappy delivery to realize how much you’ve missed it; he puts his jazzy spin on even the throwaway lines, rendering a character that is simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous, which is a pretty neat trick.
Cronenberg makes a few miscalculations; some of the playing is self-consciously odd, particularly when it comes to bad-boy caricature Benjie (Bird’s not a terribly good actor — though thanks to Cronenberg’s peculiar style, it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much). The scenes of Benjie and his fellow teen millionaires trading jaded barbs are a bit of a slog, the writer and director going for a nudgingly arch tone that doesn’t quite land. There is a climactic scene with special effects that are befuddlingly amateurish (I mean, this is like Birdemic-level stuff). And your mileage may vary with regard to the success of its big, hard turn to darkness and violence in the last half-hour — it’s pretty jarring, and purposefully so, but the tonal pivot may be too much for some moviegoers.
It worked for this viewer, though; there’s a gory, unnerving murder with a real sting to it, and a welcome inevitability to the picture’s eventual nihilism. You may laugh at Maps to the Stars, loudly and often, but by those closing passages, the laughs have a way of sticking in your throat.
Map to the Stars is screeening Saturday and Sunday at the New York Film Festival.