With Maps To The Stars, the erstwhile king of venereal horror David Cronenberg trains his scalpel-like gaze on Hollywood, and the resulting film is as withering and unsettling as you might expect. Based on a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, it’s a Tinseltown drama vaguely in the tradition of Sunset Blvd or Swimming With Sharks, but layered with Cronenberg’s trademark fascination with the frailties of human flesh.
Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha, the young, wraith-like waypoint into a demented vision of upper-crust Los Angeles. Stepping off an overnight bus into the Californian sunshine, she’s in town to help Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher) with her latest novel, but really, her arrival has more to do with a disconnected group of people who all have three things in common: fame, extraordinary wealth, and an assorted selection of neuroses.
First, there’s Benji, a 13-year-old actor recovering from alcohol abuse and cajoled into starring in a tawdry comedy sequel called Bad Babysitter II by his pushy mother, Christina (Olivia Williams). Benji’s father Dr Stafford (John Cusack) is a self-help guru who dishes out seedy, presumably eye-wateringly expensive massages – with a helping of Jungian psycho-babble on the side – to gullible movie stars like Havana (Julianne Moore).
Havana is an actress descended from Hollywood royalty; her mother was the star of a classic black-and-white drama called Stolen Waters, a film which, in true modern Tinseltown style, is in the process of being remade. Clearly unstable and haunted by horrific childhood memories, Havana desperately wants to play the part once occupied by her own mother in that remake, and pursues the role with cold-blooded single-mindedness.
That all these characters are selfish, vain and grasping probably won’t come as much of a surprise, yet while Maps To The Stars doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a wry joke or six at Hollywood’s expense, Cronenberg is far too intelligent to just go for surface level gags. His film highlights the absurdity of even trying to pull off the conjuring trick of appearing like a classic movie star – perfect, polished, untouchable – because how can a movie star hope to attain perfection when, underneath, they’re just as vulnerable, anxious and prone to vicious bouts of constipation as the rest of us?
A pallid enigma in black silken gloves, Wasikowska is the thread that holds Maps To The Stars’ strange tale together, but it’s Julianne Moore who makes the strongest impression. Havana should be a spoiled monster of a woman, yet Moore’s performance is sharp, funny and downright brave enough to excuse the most outrageous sides of her character. We root for her, even as we cringe at her excesses.
Beneath the sharp drama, with all its deliciously of-the-moment snipes at modern Hollywood, there’s the same preoccupation with mortality Cronenberg displayed in his earlier work. Cronenberg’s characters are frequently disturbed or obsessively driven by something, and Maps To The Stars is no exception: its collection of writers, actors and wannabe stars are all scarred or traumatised in some form (and literally haunted, in some cases) and they all believe they can heal themselves if they could only get the next big role, the next fat pay cheque, the next six-figure movie deal.
It’s the same yearning for completion that proved to be the undoing for the protagonists in such Cronenberg prime cuts as The Fly and Dead Ringers, and you’ve probably gathered by now that things don’t end happily for this film’s galaxy of dwindling stars.
Cronenberg may be almost 20 feature films into his career by now, but he shows no signs of mellowing: Maps To The Stars is just as graphic, unflinching and disturbing as his earlier work. Admittedly, it’s not without its faults – John Cusack’s Stafford is one-dimensionally unpleasant, Robert Pattinson barely registers as a chauffeur and would-be screenwriter, and some plot developments are a little too easy to predict, which is an unusual thing to encounter in a Cronenberg movie.
Despite all this, Maps To The Stars is yet another hypnotic, troubling film from one of cinema’s great, untameable talents.
Maps To The Stars is out on the 26th September in UK cinemas.
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