Targets don’t come much softer than Hollywood. What stops David Cronenberg’s grotesque noir ‘Maps to the Stars’, written by LA insider Bruce Wagner, from feeling tired is that it’s deliciously odd. It hovers in the ether above reality, as if the director of ‘The Fly’, ‘A History of Violence’ and ‘Cosmopolis’ managed to get his hands on a rogue script for TV’s ‘Entourage’ and up the weird factor tenfold. Some of this creepy portrait of Beverly Hills screw-ups is deeply silly – here’s looking at you, John Cusack as a self-help guru with a nasty past – but it has just enough venomous bite to leave you feeling poisoned simply from being in the company of these gargoyles for two hours.
At first, it feels like ‘Maps to the Stars’ is going to play close to known reality, with characters talking about ‘Harvey’ (Weinstein, we presume) and about how one filmmaker ‘ain’t PT Anderson’. ‘This is Garry Marshall not Bertolucci,’ says Julianne Moore’s desperate, fat-lipped actress Havana. She’s a horrific creation: spoilt, needy, two-faced, the daughter of another actress (‘a dead cult figure’) and a lonely, walking mess in Rodeo Drive clothes, aching to land a role. Another character, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) steps off the bus from a shady past and becomes her assistant. Her arms are always covered and on her face are scars. She’s obsessed with celebrity and makes friends with a limo driver-cum-wannabe screenwriter (Robert Pattinson, in a sideline role), but her eye is always on a bigger prize.
Elsewhere we meet a child movie star, Benjie (Evan Bird), fresh from a scandal and trying to keep his career on track at 13. The film’s most horrific creation, Benjie out-Biebers Bieber. He’s humourless, slick and sad. At the core of all this nastiness are Benjie’s parents, Cristina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford (Cusack). She’s her son’s manager, while Stafford’s ability to spout nonsense as a therapist in print and on TV has made him a rich man who’ll do anything to protect his interests. He’s the film’s most awkward creation.
The connections between all these characters go further and turn much darker. But Cronenberg holds back from revealing them too early, slowly letting fragments of ice break away from his chilly set-up. The story is wild, but it’s dragged through the rough patches, when satire rubs up against exaggeration, by three killer performances from Waskikowska, Moore and newcomer Bird.
Cronenberg’s direction feels at home in a world of soulless homes and offices, clubs at night and flash cars. He locates a deeply sick spirit in his tale and explores it through far-fetched fiction told with deadly seriousness, also adding a dose of baroque to proceedings and a streak of wicked humour. ‘Maps of the Stars’ offers some ludicrous moments and a fair few bum notes, but we’re still left with a troubling sense of infected bloodlines, sick Hollywood genes and a world any sane person would run a mile from.