David Cronenberg brings his singular approach to a savage satire of Hollywood mores with “Maps to the Stars,” a coolly analytical dissection of mad desperation among the Beverly Hills set that, like “Cosmopolis” before it, will antagonize many filmgoers while engrossing others.
Bruce Wagner’s script—written years ago when he worked as a limo driver, just as wannabe actor-writer Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, who also starred in “Cosmopolis,” though there he was in the car’s back seat) does in the film—focuses on two celebrities, one a precocious child actor and the other an actress who fears encroaching middle age, as well as the people who circle around them like planets around a star. The kid is Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a thirteen-year old who hit it big in a “Home Alone”-style comedy called “Bad Babysitter” and is making a sequel to it after a stint in rehab—a gig arranged by his mother and manager Cristina (Olivia Williams). The actress is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who’s anxious to get the role in a remake of a film called “Stolen Waters” that her mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), a legendary beauty who tragically died in a fire when Havana was only a child, played in the original.
What links Benjie and Havana is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the boy’s sister, who returns to California after years in an institution in Florida. Physically scarred as a result of a long-ago fire, she quickly gets a position as Havana’s assistant as a result of her online friendship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself). She also attempts to kindle a romance with Jerome, whose limo she hires for a tour of the Hills. But her efforts to reconnect with her family are strenuously opposed by Benjie’s father Stafford (John Cusack), a self-help writer and motivational speaker who’s also Havana’s counselor, in that role putting her through some oddball physical therapy.
Two other figures float around the action—ghostly ones. Havana’s periodically visited by the spirit of her mother, while Benjie is haunted by a young girl (Klara Glasco) who died after he’d visited her—none too smoothly—in the hospital. The visions of her mother only reinforce Havana’s concern that her career is unraveling, while those Benjie experiences lead him to the fear that he might be suffering from the same sort of mental imbalance that had so troubled his sister that she committed the act that led to her expulsion from the family, one mirrored in an assault against his even younger co-star Rhett (Justin Kelly). Benjie’s jealous attack on Rhett has its counterpart in the gruesome way Havana takes advantage of a tragedy that befalls her rival (Jayne Heitmeyer) for the role she’s so lusting after.
Obviously these are all broken people, and the interconnections among them grow increasingly complicated and destructive over time. Cronenberg oversees it all with a typically detached, clinical eye, abetted by a physical production (Carol Spier’s production design, Elinor Galbraith’s art direction, Itsuko Kurono’s set design and Peter Nicolakakos’ set decoration) that emphasizes the empty glitz and sterility of the locales and by Peter Suschitzky’s sharp, angular cinematography. Howard Shore’s score exhibits a similar sort of dry elegance.
As to the performances, they all contribute to the director’s overall scheme, but differ in tone and expression. Moore is certainly the most extroverted of the cast, giving Havana a degree of emotional wildness that Bird is encouraged to keep in check: Benjie comes across as an almost preternaturally controlled youngster whose quiet surface conceals simmering rage that can burst forth abruptly in cynical invective, or worse. As the lynchpin that connects them, Wasikowska manages to combine a sense of fragility with the intimation that Agatha is a much stronger, and potentially more dangerous, figure than she appears at first glance. Williams, Cusack and Pattinson each contribute sharp supporting turns.
Ultimately the individual viewer will decide whether the cold, scientific approach that Cronenberg takes to the sort of cynical portrait of Hollywood mores that Vincente Minelli, for example, brought to “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town.” But love it or hate it, “Maps to the Stars” is clearly the work of a filmmaker with a unique—as well as provocative—vision and a distinctive, compelling style.