David Cronenberg has fashioned a distinguished career making films about death, disease, sexual perversity and violence. But it’s doubtful he’s ever directed anything as scabrous and self-loathing as “Maps to the Stars.”
One of those works about Hollywood in which Tinseltown self-hatred is wrapped in layers of insincerity and deviance, the movie is brilliantly acted and impossible to ignore. Some will like it; others will find it utterly repellent.
With its graphic nudity, R-rated violence and cast of extreme characters, Cronenberg’s latest could almost pass for an exploitation film. But the screenplay by Bruce Wagner, whose novels (“I’ll Let You Go,” “Still Holding”) explore the film industry’s demimonde, is way too erudite to be easily dismissed (a key plot point involves surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s “Liberté”). Still, its decidedly unconventional exploration of family ties is, at times, too bizarre to be taken seriously.
Julianne Moore stars as Havana Segrand, an actress desperate to headline the remake of a movie her mother, who died in a fire, starred in 30 years ago. After firing her assistant, she hires Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), just in from Florida, to replace her. It turns out Agatha is the schizophrenic daughter of celebrity therapist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and mommy celebrity manager Christina Weiss (Olivia Williams), whose home she burned down in a fit of madness. Agatha was farmed out to a psychiatric hospital and hasn’t seen her parents in seven years. In the meantime, her brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), has become a huge teen star, drug addict, and all-around terrible person.
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As it builds toward a bloody climax involving murder and suicide, “Maps to the Stars” is filled with everything from kinky sex to bathroom jokes and gobs of Hollywood insider references – everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Nicole Kidman and Bernardo Bertolucci gets a shout-out. Included is a creepy scene in which studio management types attempt to determine whether Benjie’s rehab has been successful, so they can go ahead with the latest entry in the “Babysitter” franchise he stars in. And there are surreal sequences in which Havana is visited by her dead mother, and Benjie has visions of a young girl he visited in the hospital, who later died of lymphoma.
It is, to be honest, a bit much, but utterly compelling in the same way a natural disaster or major traffic accident focuses your attention. Certainly the film makes its point – that Hollywood is filled with crippled personalities obsessed with fame, egotists using amoral or immoral means to achieve their ends (Stafford, who demands that Agatha return to Florida, is concerned his daughter’s reappearance will harm his upcoming book tour). And any film in which Eluard’s line “On the stairs of death I write your name” is practically a summation of the plot – well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?