Late period David Cronenberg seems to get better and better with each passing film at finding an ornate brand of delirium in the tedious, frustrating oddity of real life. Squarely aiming his gaze at the literal strangest place on Earth, Hollywood, Cronenberg takes the scathing dark comedy of Bruce Wagner’s screenplay and transforms it into a modern ghost story, where the ghosts feel less like supernatural apparitions and more extravagant manifestations of a very specific mania. It’s an examination of the insular, peculiar other-world of Los Angeles, and the industry that bends regular people into fictional constructs, that perverts memory and truth into doubt, that purports to turn dreams into magic, but hides backstage the dark art that feeds those same dreams into the cosmic sausage grinder to get what you all love so much up on the screen.
Maps To The Stars principally follows Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a strange girl who wears arm length gloves to hide mysterious burn marks, and her entry into the LA scene. Agatha behaves like a rube, throwing down major coin to have aspiring actor/writer Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) chauffeur her around in the limo he drives to pay the bills, but underneath her odd exterior and her medication rituals, she appears more knowledgeable than she pretends to be. She’s friends with Carrie Fisher (playing herself) from Twitter, and this connection gets her a job working for actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) as her new “chore whore.” Segrand is struggling through the pathetic way Hollywood treats women of a certain age, as well as childhood trauma she believes she suffered at the hands of her famous mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire in the 70s. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is her psychologist, helping her work through these memories with some particularly hands on therapy, while his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) handles their famous child actor son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a Bieber-esque terror fresh out of rehab at fourteen and trying to regain control of the Bad Babysitter franchise that put him on the map.
It’s essentially the tale of two warped and dysfunctional families, exploring the ways, both symbolic and literal, they’re entwined. There are some twists that we’ll leave unspoiled here (you may be able to assume them yourself just based on the above block of text), but they’re not left field paradigm shifts so much as buried baggage floating to the surface of the plot. For as much as Maps is structured like a psychology pot boiler, it functions like a dark comedy. Most of the more twisted, genre appropriate moments of transgression you’ll be anticipating from the trailer and marketing material are saved for the third act, constantly seeping in with the foreboding tone at the corner of your eye, but the meat of the film is, in its own fucked up way, seriously hilarious.
When we first meet Benjie, he’s meeting a Make-a-Wish kid at the hospital. When she tells him how much she liked his Bad Babysitter movie, he responds, “We did 780 million worldwide. Not many people realize that.” From that moment forward, you realize how scathing a look at the industry and its inhabitants this film is going to be. In an informercial we glimpse in the background on more than one occasion, Dr. Weiss refers to a patient of his who “lives under the sword of Damocles we call AIDS.” The expertly obsessed patter of Hollywood small talk (deceitful pleasantries rife with dramatic subtext) shifts from casual vulgarity (in any of the scenes with Benjie and his child star friends who all curse like Mamet-penned sailors) to the off kilter poetry of Segrand’s insults to a rival actress (“Do you know how she got famous? She let them stick their cocks in her ass and pee!”) The film is full of brilliantly incisive lines of dialogue that are delivered with stone faced honesty by the cast, which fits the overall moody tone and enhances the comedy. A lot of movies that poke fun at Hollywood have a kind of manic self awareness that feels like winking and it detracts from the comedy, creating an unnecessary buffer of ironic distance. In Maps, these characters are funnier and more disturbing by how normal they present themselves to be. This is a film where Julianne Moore erupts into a celebratory singalong of “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey-ey Goodbye” over the surprisingly fortuitous death of a small child.
There’s some brilliant acting on display here. Julianne Moore captures the histrionics of an actress who, being cast aside by Hollywood, is slowly driving herself insane. John Cusack, finally starting to fucking age after decades of impervious boyishness, makes his Dr. Weiss the most despicable and humorous role he’s ever inhabited, discounting that one time Lee Daniels thought he should play Richard Nixon. Wasikowska takes what could be a pretty one note role and imbues it with a lot of nuance and heart, but the real revelation is Evan Bird, whose Benjie Weiss is the best performance in the entire film. Rather than just a running gag on Justin Bieber and similarly insipid kid stars, Benjie one of the few characters in the film who you can actually feel sorry for, and Bird maintains just the right balance of assholishness to illicit sympathy and scorn owing to the needs of the scene. In his second collaboration with Cronenberg, Robert Pattinson continues to show his chops, but is given considerably less to do here than he had in Cosmopolis.
Cronenberg does some fascinating stuff here, particularly in the way he straddles than the line between horror and hilarity. There’s a scene late in the film (the details of which you’ll discover on your own) where a character discovers another character on fire, and the way the sequence 180s from abject fright to laugh-out-loud slapstick is downright scary. As Segrand and Benjie are both haunted by their pasts (Segrand, by her mother, and Benjie, the aforementioned Make-a-Wish kid), we’re treated to some truly perturbing imagery that, while clearly psychological in nature and linked to no paranormal elements, color the film’s proceedings with just the right amount of spookiness. There’s something pervasively impersonal about Hollywood (something you feel sharply in a scene where Segrand hugs Carrie Fisher and the camera immediately cuts to a reverse angle from inside a nearby coffeeshop) and what it does to its inhabitants that just can’t be contained in a slice of life style narrative.
By taking this sprawling, generational tale and letting the laughs and scares occupy equal time, Cronenberg and company have crafted a film about Tinsletown that doesn’t have to rely on inside baseball to paint a portrait of the single weirdest place in the world.
Maps to the Stars is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 2nd via Entertainment One.