In Maps to the Stars, his first film to aim a direct lens at Hollywood, David Cronenberg pans satiric gold from the muck of celebrity ills, in a Tinseltown where reality depends on your dosage.
Drawn from a scathing script by novelist Bruce Wagner, a former limo driver, the film focuses on two households and multiple dysfunctions.
One is led by Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a smug self-help guru and his shrewish wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who have a past they’d sooner forget.
Their 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty child TV star, freshly sprung from rehab, who has the mouth of a longshoreman and the manners of a wart hog.
Benjie’s older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowsa), a pyromaniac who was badly burned in a fire, is considerably quieter but no less troublesome. She’s just returned to L.A. after a long spell in Jupiter — the Florida city, not the planet, although you never know — and her vague agenda doesn’t appear to be one of family togetherness.
On the other side of Beverly Hills Blvd. is the mansion of Havana Segrand (a sizzling Julianne Moore), a once-popular actress who has discovered that youth serums and yoga won’t hold back time or bring back good acting assignments. She’s desperate to land the key role in a movie based on her late mother, also an actress and “dead cult figure,” who is seen in flashback (and ghostly apparitions) played by Sarah Gadon.
The two households intersect at several points. Stafford ministers to Havana with his wacky treatments. Agatha gets hired as Havana’s personal assistant, after the star’s previous “chore whore” just up and quit — a regular occurrence in Hollywood, it seems.
And then there’s Robert Pattinson’s limo driver character, a wannabe writer and actor, whose capacious town car ferries the various players and also proves handy for sexual shenanigans.
This is one of those movies where you don’t really know where it’s heading — multiple subplots are in play — but the characters are strong enough that you don’t really care.
Especially strong is Moore’s Havana, a portrait of manic desperation drawn from Gloria Swanson’s delusional hermit in Sunset Blvd. and Bette Davis’ sharp-tongued harridan in All About Eve.
The role won Moore the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year, where Maps premiered, and you can see why. Havana is a completely self-absorbed character — at one point she noisily uses a toilet while issuing instruction to Agatha — but her misery is palpable and it’s impossible to hate her.
She’s reached the life crossroads where ambition meets reality and the approaching light is a freight train, not a search beacon for a Hollywood premiere. Havana isn’t at all in a healthy frame of mind, but at least she’s in the right town to go crazy in style.
Kicking at Hollywood foibles is as easy as booting an overripe Halloween pumpkin, and Cronenberg and Wagner don’t bring a whole lot new to the table, apart from cynical eyes and rapier wit.
Yet it’s a hoot to watch, especially if you’ve ever wondered what a Genie Award is good for, apart from sitting on a shelf.
Watching these appalling people brings to mind the exchange in All About Eve where Bill Sampson scolds Bette Davis for her acid tongue.
“Have you no human consideration?” he asks.
Her reply: “Show me a human, and I might have!”