Maps to the Stars

The laughs stick in your throat in David Cronenberg's satire of what's tainted in Tinseltown

Julianne Moore in 'Maps to the Stars.' Credit: Dan McFadden/Focus

Hollywood sucks! But wait, that's hardly fresh news. What does Maps to the Stars have to say to jack up our pulses for right the hell now? Screenwriter-novelist-actor Bruce Wagner wrote this thing back in the 1990s when he worked as a limo driver for the Beverly Hills Hotel and saw the cesspool of celebrity up close. Lucky for him, the world has only grown more superficial and fame-obsessed.

Lucky for us, Maps to the Stars is directed by Canadian virtuoso David Cronenberg, shooting in the U.S. for the first time and finding in Hollywood an ideal place to work out his feelings about body horror, a theme that has challenged him in films as diverse as Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and A Dangerous Method. Cronenberg knows that the epicenter for fear of aging, and of a body breaking down, is Hollywood. It's a place where putting a pretty face on decay — physical and moral — is everyone's business. In fact, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack is slimeball perfection) has made a career as a TV shrink by preying on the angst of the rich and famous, even when he's having sex with them.

One of his clients is Havana Segrand, an actress determined not to go gentle into decline. As played with ferocious wit and wickedness by Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for letting it rip, Havana is a nasty piece of work. Moore, in a 180-degree turn from her Oscar-saluted delicacy in Still Alice, delivers a tour de force of ego unleashed. Havana regularly drives assistants away, especially when she takes meetings on the throne of her toilet. On her cell to Carrie Fisher (as herself), Havana commands, "I need a new chore whore." It's one of the bons mots that pepper Wagner's script, in which anyone over 25 is referred to as "menopausal."

Things take a grave turn when Havana hires Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) for chore-whore duty. Agatha, a pyromaniac, is badly scarred from an accident and has just been released from a Florida psychiatric facility. Perfect clay for Havana to mold. Agatha's friendship with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a limo driver based on Wagner, is the one bright spot in the chamber of horrors she calls a life. It turns out the celeb guru is her dad. Her mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a manager now in control of the burgeoning career of their 13-year-old son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a tantrum-throwing brat of Bieber proportions.

It's a lot to take in. And the script piles on secrets, lies and perversions, including incest, sexual abuse and murder. It's definitely overcrowding when ghosts show up to haunt Havana and Benjie. And yet the film works as a dark comic blast into the dazzle and depravity of Hollyweird. The great Cronenberg, with the help of gifted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, keeps us locked to reality even as the film hurtles into the absurd. You can laugh with Maps to the Stars, but you can't laugh it off. Prepare to be knocked for a loop.