David Cronenberg has spent his entire career working on the fringes of Hollywood. An auteur with a singular vision, his big hits and art house flicks all live outside the The Entertainment Capital of the World. With the release of “Maps to the Stars,” the first film he ever shot in Los Angeles, he almost ensures he’ll never do business in that town again.
Hollywood enjoys turning the camera on itself, but not since Robert Altman’s “The Player” has the selfie provided such a wonderfully sadistic portrait of Tinsel Town and its citizens. Cronenberg takes a bite out of Hollywood and finds a cookie full of arsenic.
At the center of Bruce Wagner’s script are the Weiss’s, a Hollywood family with more secrets than TMZ’s too-hot-to-handle file. Father Stafford (John Cusack) is a self-help guru who uses new age jargon— “If we name it, we can tame it.”— and massage to heal his wealthy clients. One of his regulars is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a former big name actress who is now as messed up as she is washed up. Stafford’s wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) is the momager of Benjie (Evan Bird) a teen superstar fresh out of rehab. Into this toxic mix comes Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim with schizophrenia whose presence threatens to expose closely guarded secrets.
This may be the most sun-dappled film Cronenberg has ever made, but don’t let the light fool you, it’s also one of his darkest. The glee Havana feels when she wins a coveted role in a movie because the original actress’s son has died is a nastier indictment of Hollywood than anything in “Sunset Boulevard.” Ditto Benjie’s disappointment when he learns that the young girl he visits in the hospital has non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “I mean non-Hodgkin’s, what’s that?” he says. “Either you are or you aren’t.”
Cronenberg uses the notion of Hollywood mythology as a palette to paint a picture of the stupid, venal and stratospherically self-involved behavior that goes on behind the scenes in Beverly Hills’s gated communities.
Moore presents Havana as a bundle of exposed ego and neurosis. Cusack is a career-minded Zen master, a cruel man whose world is starting to unwind while his son Benjie is a foul-mouthed child with a squeaky clean image. Rona Barrett would have had a heyday with this bunch.
Wasikowska is the outsider, the fly in the ointment that connects and tears apart each of the characters. She’s a strange, ghostly character, almost as ghostly as the poltergeists that haunt Benjie and Havana. In a world where flickering images are often more potent than the people who make them, the appearance of specters isn’t otherworldly, it’s an expected offshoot for a world that believes in the make-believe.
“Maps to the Stars” will divide people. Some will find its sadomasochistic glee in the travails of its characters unsettling; others will revel in the terrific performances and the decidedly un-Hollywood feel of this, the most Hollywood of Cronenberg’s films.