'Maps to the Stars': Cannes Review

Curdled wit about Hollywood served with a scalpel.

David Cronenberg's latest project, featuring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson, is reminiscent of the severely negative films about Hollywood from the 1970s.

Throughout his prolific 45-year career, Canadian director David Cronenberg had never before gone south of the border to film anything in Hollywood until lured by Bruce Wagner’s original script for Maps to the Stars. Even at that, he spent only a week there to cover exteriors, but it was enough to provide an honest backdrop to this luridly over-the-top tale of toxic familial relations, out-of-control egos and the past continuing to haunt the present. Some of the very black humor and snarky insider quips hit the bull’s-eye, and Julianne Moore, in particular, gives her all for the occasion. But the unmodulated and overweening bile is reminiscent of the severely negative films about Hollywood from the 1970s, such as Myra Breckinridge, Alex in Wonderland and The Day of the Locust, and it’s unlikely this one will have any better a box-office fate.

Ever since he arrived on the literary scene in the 1980s with Force Majeure: The Bud Wiggins Stories, Wagner has tried to position himself as the ultimate Hollywood outsider/insider, a sardonic sage who can spill all the secrets but still remain a member of the club. He may know what he’s talking about but he also exaggerates for effect, in this case by upping the ante with elements of incest, murder and a Bieberesque monster of a pubescent star who nearly strangles to death a younger child actor.

It’s often the case that outsiders have a way of looking at any setting, including Hollywood, and seeing things locals take for granted. But Cronenberg assumes a distinctly clinical approach to the emotional, social and business shenanigans on display here, a perspective that has brilliantly served some of his overtly psychological, horror and sci-fi pieces but gives this one a brittle and airless feel.

Arriving from Jupiter, she says, and inserting herself into the main characters’ lives very quickly is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a chatty yet mysterious young woman with a scarred neck and hands who pushily befriends her would-be actor-writer limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and quickly gets a job as personal assistant to aging leading lady Havana Segrand (Moore). Paradoxically, Havana is both the most hysterical and most self-aware person onscreen here -- hysterical precisely because she’s painfully aware she’s looking older and will have trouble getting roles because of it.

At the moment, she’s particularly riled over the possibility of not getting the part her own mother played years before in a film now being remade. The sentiments of age-sensitive actresses are nothing new, but Havana takes them to new heights, inspiring Moore to a verbally and physically out-there performance that isn’t always funny but certainly is bold and, at its core, believable.

But the film’s most au courant and inflammatory conceit is no doubt the portrait of the 13-year-old mega-star, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a kid just out of rehab whose longtime success on TV and $780 million gross for his latest film allow him to call his agent stuff like “Jew faggot” and get away with it. He also thinks it’s funny when he labels people “vabinas” and, on a would-be goodwill visit, asks a hospitalized young girl how her AIDS is doing.

Fully supporting this extravagantly articulate little cretin is his witch-like manager mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams); his dad, Stafford (John Cusack), is a self-help guru of TV and book fame who also administers very unpleasant-looking physical therapy to Havana.

The action is always on the move from one expensively appointed location to another -- parties where Benjie gossips with vapid young things, executive meetings, film shoots and vivid, if not explicit, sex scenes involving the perennially available Havana, one a three-way with another woman and a guy, the other a rear-end back-seat quickie with Pattinson’s driver in his town car.

The problem with unalloyed cynicism is that it gets old faster than nearly any other intellectual posture and feels cheap in the bargain. On top of this, Wagner’s climactic revelation here, which relates to where the mysterious Agatha really came from other than another planet, doesn’t seem quite as outrageous as the stuff involving Benjie, which is the most 21st century of everything the film holds up for the audience’s presumed amusement and its own ridicule.

Wagner peppers his dialogue with some memorable profanities and extreme expressions of ego, all no doubt jotted down from real life onto his notepad. But perhaps the best line -- an L.A. witticism if ever there were one -- comes from an older woman who, asked how she’s doing upon a chance encounter at the Chateau Marmont, replies, “When I get in touch with myself I’ll let you know.”

The women and the youngsters have the best roles here; Moore and Wasikowska throw themselves into theirs, mostly to good effect but at times over-recklessly, while Williams provides a mortifying picture of a Hollywood monster mom. Bird is precociously impressive as a kid who should be sentenced to boot camp and then Afghanistan, while Cusack and Pattinson are indifferent in dimensionless roles.

This Canadian-German co-production looks sharp but, in the end, comes off more like a prank than a coherent take on 21st century Hollywood, even if there are crumbs of truth and wit scattered throughout it.

Production: Entertainment One, Prospero Pictures, Starmaps Productions/SBS Productions, Integral Film
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, Niamh Wilson, Dawn Greenhalgh, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Bruce Wagner
Producers; Martin Katz, Said Ben Said
Executive producers: Renee Tab, Patrice Theroux, Benedict Carver
Director of photography: Peter Suschitzky
Production designer: Carol Spier
Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Music: Howard Shore

Rated R, 112 minutes