David Cronenberg has always been a filmmaker whose work pushes against conventional storytelling, but with "Maps to the Stars," he assails the institution responsible for its ugliest examples.
Aided to a large degree by a grimly amusing script by novelist Bruce Wagner riddled with scathing caricatures, Cronenberg's followup to 2012's "Cosmopolis" (and the first project by the Canadian director shot in the United States) does a far better job of skewing capitalism's discontents by exploring their manifestations in the American movie business. While not the director's canniest piece of filmmaking, it's unquestionably his angriest, politically motivated achievement. Every missive hits its target hard with a comedy-horror combo aimed squarely at the kind of commercial stupidity that Cronenberg has avoided throughout his 45-year career. Now we know why.
It only takes a matter of minutes for Wagner's screenplay to begin its assault on modern culture: Newly released from the psycho ward, schizophrenic burn victim Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood and chats with her driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson) about career ambitions. While Agatha boasts of a professional relationship with Carrie Fisher forged on Twitter, aspiring actor Jerome mentions Scientology, which he's "thinking about joining, you know, as a career move."
So begins a full-on assault on the priorities of a vapid world. If anything, Agatha emerges as the most sympathetic figure in an industry defined by the horrid self-interests of her twisted family. Her younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird) is a mega-star actor known for a cartoonish franchise called "Bad Babysitter" (which is frequently mentioned but, like a phantom menace of pop-culture mania, never appears). He's first seen paying a celebrity hospital visit to a cancer victim he mistakenly identifies as suffering from AIDS, an error he blames on his publicist with anti-Semitic epithet. When the girl professes her admiration for his movie, his reply stems from a purely corporate mindset: "We did $70 - $80 million worldwide with that." Later, forced to take a meeting with studio executives to prove his post-rehab competence, he vomits in the bathroom shortly afterward, disgusted by the prospects of curbing his ego.
While hardly making these younger characters pitiable, Wagner positions them as victims of an older machine, rooting the origins of their mania in their parents. Their father is a kooky massage therapist to the stars named Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a domineering figure who doles out absurd new-age advice to his clients, including the neurotic aging actress Havana Segrand (a terrific Julianne Moore); his wife, Cristina (Olivia Williams), lords over their son's success by catering to his every whiny need. When the couple learns of Agatha's arrival, they make recurring attempts to keep her out of their lives, fearing the emergence of dark truths they have battled to keep hidden.
The burn marks covering Agatha's face, the result of a mysterious instance of rebellion that estranged her from the household, signal the touchstones of Cronenbergian body horror seeping into the narrative: It's just a matter of time before these superficial characters face comeuppance from the monsters they've created.
The stories slowly begin to merge as Agatha takes on a gig working as a personal assistant to Havana—a Norma Desmond-like diva desperately seeking her comeback role and haunted by the ghost of her late mother, who sexually abused Havana in her youth. It seems that the virus of self-absorption lingering throughout this town is a hereditary affliction.
As these themes echo around each strand of the plot, the pieces slowly come together for a series of violent conclusions in which the system literally destroys itself. "Maps to the Stars" captures the depths of madness plaguing Hollywood culture that other recent attempts at similar territory, such as "The Canyons" and "Trust Me," achieved to far lesser effect. Cronenberg turns Hollywood into a haven of grotesqueries that so exhaustively consumes its inhabitants they can't see it around them. Such obliviousness allows for countless outrageous scenes, including one in which Havana defecates in her posh bathroom while grilling her assistant for details about her sex life; elsewhere, she complains to a sex partner when he picks up a work call in the midst of a threesome and fails to drop her name.
The cast syncs with the material's wicked extremes. Moore's icky performance marks her best work since "Magnolia," and Wasikowska brings an eerie disdain for her parents, making a welcome shift into creepier material. Cusack's usual deadpan delivery gets a fresh kick from his character's contemptible eccentricities. Bird, to date best known for his role on "The Killing," nicely inhabits the child-actor mold by radiating privilege in every line.
Only Pattinson, in a handful of scenes, is underutilized—yet the new context of his celebrity in this anti-celebrity project marks one more satisfying ingredient in Cronenberg's subversive mixture. "Maps to the Stars" is a poetic dissection of familiar ingredients that zeroes in on its worst offenders. Every major plot point, from Havana struggling to land a role playing her own mother to Agatha seeking to reenact a perverted incident from her parents' past, underscores the impression of Hollywood's redundant tendencies enveloped in an eternal downward cycle.
Cronenberg matches the ire of Wagner's script with weighted imagery: The Hollywood sign hovers ominously in the background of many scenes; the brightly lit mansions where several exchanges take place blur together. The characters' lives are thoroughly empty, but while Cronenberg makes that much obvious to us, his characters remain oblivious until the chaotic finale.
But that eventual outcome lacks the cohesion of the events leading up to them, and the clunky staging of climactic moments distract from the swift black humor that give the premise its initial burst of energy. Still, the movie's furious outlook retains its edge. Cronenberg never strays from the big picture of a world not only comprised of destructive impulses, but designed to breed more of them.
"Maps to the Stars" premiered this weekend at the Cannes Film Festival. eOne will release the film in the U.S. later this year.