David Cronenberg's new 'Maps to the Stars' is a different kind of living nightmare

'Maps to the Stars'
'Maps to the Stars'

Oh, did you have dreams of going to Hollywood, becoming a star and living happily ever after? Maps to the Stars will put an end to them. This is one of Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg's least trippy films, which makes it all too plausible as it looks askew at the living nightmares that are the lives of the Weiss family of Los Angeles. All of the members of the family are deeply entrenched in the industry. Except for one thing they think is horrific – and it's pretty bad – they don't even seem to recognize how appalling they truly are. The movie is quite hilarious in a deeply disturbing way that you won't want to look at straight on, lest it forever ruin you as a lover of movies, left with the nagging suspicion that the people who make the magic really are this messed up.

There's Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) who, at 13 years old, is already a veteran of rehab, which has the studio worried that he may be a threat to the Bad Babysitter idiot-comedy franchise he's attached to; Benjie doesn't have auditions, he has urine tests. (This is a world in which people talk earnestly about "protecting the franchise," and where the likes of Benjie drop the names of other celebs their sobriety sponsors have worked with.) Benjie is a terrible human being: obnoxious, racist, ignorant, misogynistic and homophobic, all of which we learn in our first few moments in his presence. Mom Christina (Olivia Williams) talks contracts and numbers with her son, but not much else. (This is a world in which a decent global box office taking is a security blanket.) Dad Stafford (John Cusack) is a self-help guru and therapist to the stars who nevertheless instructs others not to ask him any "film noir questions" that might hint at why he does the things he does; he's not much into actual communication, just a parody of it.

One of Stafford's clients is neurotically insecure actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is desperate to get cast in a movie "re-imagining" of a film her deceased cult-figure mom made decades back – even though she hates her mother and is haunted by a taunting specter of her. Her new personal assistant is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), just off the bus from Florida and loaded with demented secrets, one of which she spills to her new friend Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and – of course – wannabe actor and writer.

Jerome doesn't even blink in the face of Agatha's secret, possibly because he thinks she's a crazy person telling made-up stories just to be outrageous. It goes with all the fake sincerity of the nasty, shallow people who populate this terrible place.

The incestuousness of this insular community is literal; the ghoulishness of these people is palpable. The thoughtless idiocy is a tribal marker.

There is a thrilling kind of glee in the performances of the old hands: Cusack and Moore left me with the sense that they had been aching for years to be this free and this honest. The youngsters – Wasikowska and Pattinson – seem to revel in the lack of constraints. The script, by Bruce Wagner, is delighted to be shaking off Hollywood's own fantasies about itself. (I can't recall a film this nasty and bitter and cynical about Hollywood in my lifetime.) Maybe that means no one on or behind the screen has become the self-obsessed monsters these people are. It's a nice thought, anyway.


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