It wasn’t easy for director David Cronenberg to scrape together the cash for “Maps to the Stars.” Even for an auteur with grand vision and a proven track record — “A History of Violence,” “The Fly,” “Eastern Promises” — this new movie was a tough sell. And no wonder: “Maps” is funny and original, but also decidedly brutal as it satirizes Hollywood at its most despicable.
Julianne Moore received a Golden Globe nomination for her excellent work playing Havana Segrand, a washed-up actress who wears way too much makeup and much too little clothing as part of a desperate attempt to prove she can still play the ingenue. She’s gunning for the lead in the remake of a movie in which her mother once starred, even though Havana is too old for the role. She also hates her mother, a starlet who died young and now haunts the aging actress, showing up as a beautiful apparition (Sarah Gadon) with a foul mouth who delights in berating her daughter.
Having lost another assistant to rehab, Havana is also on a desperate search to find a new “chore whore,” which brings young Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) to her mansion. Agatha is a mix of dreamy and creepy — when a limo driver asks her where she’s from, she says “Jupiter” and then, after a few beats, “Florida” — and she’s covered in scars from a near-fatal fire.
The story of Agatha and Havana becomes intertwined with that of another family, the Weisses. John Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a celebrity doctor (or “doctor”) who blends new-agey psychotherapy and Thai massage with claims that would make even Dr. Oz roll his eyes. His son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is a vile Justin Bieber clone, a foul-mouthed 13-year-old brat who has already spent a stint in rehab and who can only be properly described using words that aren’t suitable for a family newspaper. His mother, Christina (Olivia Williams), enables him, either out of blind love or insatiable greed. Maybe both.
The movie is, at times, hilarious in its depiction of Hollywood’s out-of-touch self-absorption. That same limo driver, an aspiring actor played by Robert Pattinson, weighs converting to Scientology as a career move; a man interrupts a threesome to take a work call; Stafford has Havana strip down to her underwear so he can help her release her mommy issues from the “personal history point” in her back.
But this being a Cronenberg movie, things gets weird, not to mention weirdly violent. What begins as darkly funny builds into a grotesque solipsism: When Havana hears that a little boy has drowned, she prances around her pool because it means she might get her coveted role after all.
The movie can be over-the-top and the characters are rarely anything more than vile. And yet, the whole thing is mesmerizing. Bruce Wagner, who wrote the screenplay, has a gift for incisive dialogue that’s outrageous yet also strangely believable, especially coming from the stellar actors behind these vivid characters.
Moore, whose gift for understated yet heart-wrenching portrayals just earned her an Academy Award for her role in “Still Alice,” is even more riveting here as a grown woman with hair extensions and oversized shades throwing tantrums. She sells it to the point where you start to wonder if there isn’t some grain of truth to the film.
Is Hollywood really like this? Maybe not, but the fact that Cronenberg had such a difficult time financing such an engrossing lampoon means that the industry is, at the very least, extremely flawed.
R. At West End Cinema and AFI Silver Theatre. Contains strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use. 111 minutes.