Targets don’t come broader than Hollywood, but what stops David Cronenberg’s grotesque noir (written by L.A. 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—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, Maps to the Stars hews close to reality, with characters talking about “Harvey” (Weinstein, we presume) and how one filmmaker “ain’t P.T. Anderson.” “This is Garry Marshall, not Bertolucci,” zings Julianne Moore’s desperate, fat-lipped actor, Havana. She’s a horrific creation: spoiled, needy, two-faced, the daughter of another actor (“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; on her face are scars. She’s obsessed with celebrity and makes friends with a limo driver–cum–wanna-be screenwriter (Robert Pattinson, in a side role), but her eye is always on a bigger prize.
Elsewhere we meet a child movie star, Benjie (Evan Bird), 13, fresh from a scandal and trying to keep his career on track. The film’s most horrific presence, he out-Biebers Bieber: humorless, 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.
The connections between all these characters get much darker. But Cronenberg holds back from revealing anything too early, slowly letting fragments of ice break away from his chilly setup. The story is wild, but it’s dragged through the exaggerated rough patches by three killer performances from Wasikowska, Moore and newcomer Bird.
Cronenberg’s direction feels natural to a world of soulless homes and offices, clubs at night and sleek 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 the baroque to the proceedings. Maps of the Stars offers some ludicrous moments and a 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 miles from.