“Maps to the Stars” is a cold satire about the desperate denizens of Hollywood mired in despair, derangement, and depravity of their superficial life with more bottoms to hit. The movie feels like one of those tabloid articles digging into the seedy strata of Hollywood, but its clinical approach to its silly, grotesque characters generates a certain level of cool fascination which somehow makes us keep watching them hitting another bottom of their miseries.
The movie revolves around three main characters who are damaged in one way or another by their Hollywood life. Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a struggling actress looking for any chance of breakthrough, and she has recently been trying hard to be cast as the lead actress of the remake version of some famous film. Her actress mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died due to a fire accident during the 1970s, received an Oscar nomination for her performance in that film, and Havana is desperate to gain her own fame through filling her mother’s role.
This neurotic woman is ready for her close-up, but there are a couple of problems; the director of the film is considering some other actress at present, and Havana begins to experience disturbing hallucinations. She keeps seeing her dead mother, and her mother, who looks younger and sexier than Havana as she did at that time, ridicules Havana’s pathetic attempts to reach for stardom. Havana has recently made a sensational claim of her mother’s sexual abuses, and her hallucinations make us wonder about whether that is just her another pitiful attempt to get more attention.
For stabilizing her mind, Havana has received massage therapy sessions from Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who also has his own show business matter like many other people in Hollywood. His son Benji (Evan Bird) was once a popular young actor after appearing in a very successful comedy film, but then he unfortunately fell into a substance problem not long after that, and now he is trying to make a career comeback after several years of rehabilitation period.
On the surface, it seems things may go well for this spoiled, obnoxious kid who still does not understand well his changed reality. Thanks to his devoted mother Christina (Olivia Williams) and his faithful agent, film studio executives decide to give him a second chance through allowing Benji to reprise his role in the upcoming sequel of his previous hit film, and he also has kept himself being sober for several months, though he cannot miss his evening fun with other shallow Hollywood kids who are a little luckier than him. They sometimes exchange gossips, and we even hear about one weird business of obtaining celebrity’s excrement, which seems to be profitable for some vague reason I really do not want to know about.
And then Benji also begins to suffer from a mental problem similar to Havana’s. After his casual visit to a young sick girl dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he begins to see her ghost, and he becomes more nervous as the production of his movie is started. To make the matters worse, Benji begins to believe that his younger co-star is stealing the show from him, and we come to get a pretty good idea about where his unstable ego will eventually lead him into.
Meanwhile, we also meet Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a mysterious young woman with burn scars. Thanks to her online relationship with Carrie Fisher (she appears as herself in the film), she is recommended to Havana as her new assistant as soon as she arrives in Hollywood, and she also comes to befriend Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a young actor/writer hoping for his big break while working as a limousine chauffeur or a waiter.
Right from her first scene, it is clear that there is something weird about Agatha, and our suspicion is confirmed when she approaches to the Weiss family. While Dr. Weiss is furious about that, Christina, who already has enough problems to deal with thanks to her son, becomes increasingly nervous and fearful for some reason – and we come to sense that there is a skeleton in their closet which may topple everything Mr. and Mrs. Weiss have desperately maintained for years.
Peppered with morbid moments of twisted humor, the screenplay by Bruce Wagner throws us into more desolation as these characters slowly slide down their respective destructive paths, and the director David Cronenberg maintains his usual cool attitude as observing many unpleasant behaviors of his unlikable characters. Although there are several scenes showing their human feelings, they are still superficial Hollywood caricatures even in the end, and their absurdity and depravity sometimes make the movie looks like a grotesque threesome between “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), “The Day of the Locust” (1975), and “The Informers” (2008).
Though the movie will not be their best moment, the actors in the film are willing to take a chance with their roles at least. Julianne Moore received the Best Actress award for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in this year, but I suspect that the jury members honored her courage in hurling herself into such an ugly caricature rather than the performance itself. While John Cusack and Robert Pattinson are stuck in their thankless roles, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, and Mia Wasikowska are provided with more substances to play, and Wasikowska, who has been steadily climbing up in her advancing career, is both alluring and disturbing in her elusive performance.
I watched “Maps to the Stars” with both detachment and fascination, and I guess that is exactly what Cronenberg intended in his unusual attempt of black comedy. While being as superficial as its characters, the movie is not as pungent as other dark comedies about Hollywood show business, and it does not push itself enough compared to Cronenberg’s other memorably disturbing works such as “Dead Ringers” (1988) or “Crash” (1996). It is sort of fascinating, but this is surely not something you can watch for entertainment.