David Cronenberg may have discovered the perfect setting in which to conduct another of his emotionally refrigerated examinations into perversion. Hollywood is a petri dish for the kind of parasites the director likes to watch breed and consume their human hosts. In this case the evil germ is narcissism, which mutates into a thoroughly distasteful vehicle for all sorts of ugly behavior. Murder, self-immolation, insanity and, particularly, incest are the main characteristics on display here, and they make for a film that is fascinating to watch but impossible to like.
Mia Wasikowska stars as the exiled daughter of her parents in the film, played by John Cusak and Olivia Williams, whose dirty little secret is that they married before discovering they were in fact brother and sister. It’s a detail that may have contributed to Wasikowska’s psychotic role-playing as a child, in which she enacted marriage rituals with her brother, a nasty, self-involved teenage TV star played by Evan Bird.
Wasikowska returns to Hollywood after a long stint in a Florida loony bin and takes a job as a personal assistant – or “chore whore” – to Julianne Moore, who plays a monumentally messed-up actress past her prime. Robert Pattinson also pops up in this warped party mix of self-devouring egoists, playing a limo driver and wannabe screenwriter. The characters intersect in a bizarre plot of mutual destruction, where a ghost appears in a bathtub, an unrecognizable Carrie Fisher plays herself, and Oscar-winner Moore goes flatulently all-in during a rude, over-the-top toilet scene.
As a scathing Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars adds nothing new to the perception of the film industry as a grotesque costume ball of greedy, superficial, insecure, backstabbing flameouts-in-the-making. But Cronenberg’s approach is so merciless, his eye for moral and physical disfigurement so keen, that the movie feels like a piece of fresh meat, offered up by the director so we can watch it rot in real time in the L.A. sun.
It’s surprising to learn this was the first movie the Canadian has ever made in America, but not surprising to see him make a movie which may essentially blackball him from the industry (which, frankly, has never shown much interest in his films anyway).
Without Julianne Moore, the film could have been a mere throwaway, the latest in a line of forgettable, odd, and off-putting pictures from the director whose two greatest films, The Fly and The Dead Zone, succeeded because the central characters were essentially decent people ravaged by monstrously cruel twists of fate. Nothing he’s made since has come close to achieving the atmosphere of horror and sadness of those two films, and Maps to the Stars doesn’t either. Moore’s character is neither decent nor sad, but the actor makes a committed case for understanding that Hollywood’s particular brand of hideous self-absorption is the result of a kind of inescapable curse, a genetic virulence bred in the DNA of the constantly flattered and pampered. She and everyone in her orbit are appalling and unforgiveable, but they simply can’t help themselves.
This review appeared earlier on the author's blog, The Restless Critic.