If there’s anything more irksome than movies with an urgent bulletin for us about the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood, it’s movies that deliver that message using talented actors and directors. The waste of resources makes us sick. This is gratingly the case with Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s movie-biz character study about a group of self-absorbed people busily committing career suicide — and the other, more permanent kind — in and around the Los Angeles entertainment industry.
It should go without saying that this type of film is inherently loathsome, but if anyone needs convincing, consider the characters. Caustic teenager Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a Justin Bieber-ish youth-market TV star, enjoys making sport of underlings and pulling down $300,000 a week, not necessarily in that order. Only his shrink knows how guilty he really feels — it would be news to Benjie’s father Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a celebrity quack therapist, and his mother Cristina (Olivia Williams), jealously nurturing her sprout’s paycheck.
There’s another Weiss. Benjie’s older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), her face and upper body scarred by fire, has quietly returned from psychiatric care in Florida without notifying her family, and has found a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand, an aging movie sexpot played by Julianne Moore. Both Havana and Benjie are regularly visited by ghosts from the past — Havana sees specters of her late movie-star mother (Sarah Gadon) while Benjie has his own dead playmates, and ominously relives the times he and his sister played house. Caregivers dot the landscape, enough talent agents, housekeepers, parasitic relatives, and hangers-on to populate a dozen Carrie Fisher projects — including the real-life Ms. Fisher herself. To let the story go full circle, actor Robert Pattinson shows up as a wannabe-screenwriter limo driver.
We’re inclined to give this redundant Tinseltown potboiler a shred of credibility only because of three names: Cronenberg, Moore, and Wasikowska. Moore, freshly recovered from the terminal diagnosis of Still Alice (and now armed with an Oscar), puts more into the comic/pathetic figure of Havana than the project deserves. Havana’s a fifty-year-old brat. Her career is in sundown mode, she’s in denial, and backseat sex with the help is beginning to look like a viable option. Moore wallows in it — her toilet dialogue scene, complete with farts, should dispel any lingering Alice pity. By now Wasikowska has fashioned quite a portfolio of addled debutantes (Stoker, Only Lovers Left Alive, Jane Eyre). Agatha is merely the latest.
What moved an internationally respected filmmaker like Cronenberg to dip into the guacamole? That’s the lingering question for those of us who admired A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises, and A History of Violence — not to mention Crash, Naked Lunch, and The Fly. Maybe he was intrigued by writer Wagner’s lifestyles of the bitchy and famous (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), but there’s more fatigue than intrigue in the blizzard of snark these characters let loose. Nonstop name-dropping, facelifts a-go-go, an attempted murder, something for everyone. Cronenberg is seriously late to the party. Stomping down streets where Sofia Coppola and David Lynch have trod — Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Anger, and Joe Eszterhas, too — Cronenberg and Wagner seem like a couple of dinosaurs. Let Maps to the Stars slip back into the tar pits.