Maps to the Stars Is a Hollywood Psychodrama Played to Perfection

Mia Wasikowska in Maps to the Stars.

There are scads of scabrous inside-Hollywood psychodramas, but never a festering pyre on the order of David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner’s Maps to the Stars. What a hyperfocused duo of ghouls! Their collaboration is a portrait of inbreeding—metaphorical and literal—in which a seemingly starstruck, fresh-off-the-bus young woman (Mia Wasikowska) becomes a catalyst for carnage, the nihilism so thick that it’s intoxicating, like that rank Icelandic rotten-shark dish that makes even the most hardened culinary daredevils retch. Please don’t bore me by complaining that the characters are “unlikable.” The defense admits that the movie is indefensible. Just breathe in the aroma of decay and howl like a banshee.

Heading the central family is a Hollywood self-actualization guru (John Cusack) with a faint resemblance to the doctor at the center of Cronenberg’s early horror flick The Brood (still my favorite of his films, however crude). He’s a best-selling author and combatant of repression—physically contorting his clients while exhorting them to spew up their primal traumas—while burying his own primal sins down deep. His wife (Olivia Williams) is an inward-gazing wreck, his son (Evan Bird) a teen superstar with a Justin Bieber–brat affect who finds new ways daily of being an entitled little bitch. His exiled daughter—who returns with a bang—is a delusional, murderous romantic whose body and soul are disfigured by burns. The quartet’s crisscrossing paths create a New Hollywood microcosm. They’re perfect mutants.

The whole cast—excepting a couple of youngish female apparitions, who can’t bring off their dumb scenes—is perfection, chief among them Robert Pattinson as a chauffeur to the stars for whom everyone is screenplay fodder and Dawn Greenhalgh as a veteran who steers a brilliant but subtle course between flattering her clients and delivering death blows. But it’s Julianne Moore who enters the pantheon of Hollywood freaks. She plays a damaged, rapidly aging child-woman, the daughter of a dead starlet who’s desperately trying to get cast as her mother in a metaremake of her (i.e., her mother’s) most famous role, only older than her mother when she (i.e., the mother) died, looking back on her youthful triumph … That I can’t even begin to phrase the premise of the film-within-a-film is indicative of the movie’s recursiveness and resistance to being diagrammed. Never mind. Just savor the way Moore cocks her head and blurts her self-addled, drug-addled sentiments through Botoxed lips, the embodiment of a middle-aged Lindsay Lohan should Lindsay luck out and live so long. What a mean, mesmerizing portrait!

On the surface, Maps to the Stars flouts my most cherished humanist principles, but I’m convinced that these cartoon monsters have been rendered with more pity than contempt. They’re so desperate to survive in poisoned waters that they’ve turned into creatures that are positively Cronenbergian.

*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.