Maps to the Stars ✮✮✮
By Glenn Lovell
We’ve always known that Hollywood is mired in self-loathing. How could it be otherwise in a town that’s synonymous with narcissism, toadyism and back-stabbing? Billy Wilder understood this all too well; his “Sunset Boulevard” begins in the gutter and, before Norma Desmond makes her grand exit, winds up in a brackish, rat-infested pool. Other films to give “the biz” the biz: “In a Lonely Place,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” “Mommie, Dearest,” “The Player,” the aptly titled “Swimming with Sharks.”
And now you can add to this list David Cronenberg’s scurvy, hilariously over-the-top “Maps to the Stars,” starring the just-Oscar’d Julianne Moore and based on an original screenplay by Bruce Wagner. Like Robert Aldrich’s “Lylah Clare,” this is as much Grand Guignol as show-biz farce. True to form, Cronenberg (“The Brood,” “A History of Violence”) and Moore get down and dirty, fairly luxuriating in the fetid underbelly of a business built on greed and insecurity. The film’s overarching metaphor? Why, incest, of course.
Cronenberg opens with the prototypical Hollywood Dream Scene: a willowy young thing arrives by bus in the City of Angels. This is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”). No naif, the fire-scarred Agatha is either already very well connected or certifiable. In no time, she makes friends with a handsome limo driver (“Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson) and becomes the personal assistant/”chore whore” of an aging, pill-popping, flatulence-obsessed actress named Havana Segrand (Moore). In desperate need of a comeback vehicle, Havana is in line to star in the indie “Stolen Waters.” Her agent ‒ and just about everyone else in town ‒ thinks it’s a bad idea. Havana, in the ultimate “stunt casting,” would play her own mother, who, before dying in a fire, starred in the original “Stolen Waters.” Havana is obsessed with the role, as much to prove her critics wrong as to purge memories of a possibly abusive parent.
Across town, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), Agatha’s estranged brother, is making a case for his new sobriety to the producers of the “Babysitter” franchise. Benjie is the the repulsive teen star taken to monstrous extremes; he treats everyone in his orbit, including his mother (Olivia Williams), like something he has tracked in from the dog park. Benjie’s father (John Cusack) is a bestselling self-help guru and Havana’s hands-on therapist, whose methods resemble those of a witch doctor purging evil spirits.
You were forewarned ‒ this movie is lousy with incestuous couplings.
Like all good inside-Hollywood satires, “Maps to the Stars” name-drops with impunity. Everyone from Scientologist Juliette Lewis to producer “Harvey” to former child star “Drew” rates a dig. Tinsel Town chronicler Carrie Fischer appears in a pivotal role ‒ as herself. There are also references to the Jack Cassidy fire and, when a good act of contrition may be in order, to Oprah Winfrey, as in “I’ll go Oprah ‒ do the whole Lance Armstrong thing.” Wagner, who started out writing scripts for horror franchises before turning to television, not only bites the hand that feeds but ravenously digests the entire arm.
No, Cronenberg and Wagner can’t be accused of holding back. Queen Havana, seated on the upstairs throne, delivers a symphony of farts and participates in backseat and threesome sex. When they’re not talking pharmaceuticals or swapping filthy jokes, Benjie and his pals discuss selling their shit to adoring fans. Also on the evening’s bill-of-fare: media roasting, ghosts, Russian roulette, self-immolation.
Benjie to sister Agatha: “You know for a disfigured schizophrenic you’ve got this town pretty wired.”
Hey, as Wilder and Russ Meyer knew, if you’re going to skewer your profession, half measures won’t do. Plunge the knife in to the hilt and saw upwards until you hit an artery.
MAPS TO THE STARS ✮✮✮ With Mia Wasikowska, Juliette Moore, Evan Bird, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams. Directed by David Cronenberg; Bruce Wagner. 111 min. Rated R (for profanity, violence, sex, full frontal male nudity)