With films like The Fly, Videodrome and eXistenZ, David Cronenberg's name has become synonymous with body horror. But in his latest, Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg's brand of horror is one of metaphorical human damage. And surprisingly, filling his film with Hollywood satire and deeply evil people, he's made what might well be the most hilarious film playing at the New York Film Festival.
Maps to the Stars is a Greek tragedy, chiseled in the heart of Hollywood, introducing us to an ensemble of stars, wannabes and has-beens, whose lives will all collide in a fateful climax. There's Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) a newbie to Los Angeles, with a pleasant demeanor and terrible scars from a childhood fire, Robert Pattinson as a a limo driver/aspiring actor/writer (because of course), and child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), who is essentially Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin mixed with scandal-era Justin Bieber. Then there's John Cusack as a psychobabble Hollywood guru, Olivia Williams as a steely stage mom, and Julianne Moore as a fading star fighting against time and for a comeback. Each is in ways hideous and hysterical, but in a brand of comedy that not for everyone.
It could be said that Cronenberg's Cosmopolis was a comedy, admittedly of the pitch-black variety. Maps to the Stars is as well, though this one earns flat out guffaws over nervous chuckles. Most of these won from scenes of grand depravity and ghoulish acts of selfishness or obliviousness. "So how did you get AIDS, Cami?" asks a blasé Benjie as he visits a sick fan, who--for the record suffers from Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Out of context, this may not seem like much of a joke, but within the stylish but soulless world of Cronenberg's Hollywood, this is a major laugh line. (My apologies to anyone's eardrums my own laugh may have injured at the press screening.)
Maps to the Stars is satirical, pushing the self-obsession, new wave medicine, and lust for fame of Hollywood to absurd places and a jaw-dropping finale. But between namedropping gags that target everyone from Gary Marshall to Robert Downey Jr. and Demi Lovato, Cronenberg has carved out a parable about sin and its retribution. None of these terrible people will escape doom. And as bleak as that sounds, watching them race toward it is strikingly entertaining, and at time poignant.
There's a staccato delivery to the casts' performances here that takes some getting used to, but it does set up this heightened reality where stars are monsters and ghosts serve as spirits of vengeance. The pill-popping celebs within Maps to the Stars worry they are hallucinating long lost and loathed mothers and disappointed dead girls, but there's hints in this telling that suggest there's more to these nightmares than delusion. But to say more would be to give too much away. Instead, let me sing the praises of this fearless and largely flawless cast.
Mia Wasikowska is hypnotic as the enigmatic Agatha. With a tender chemistry, she and Evan Bird managed to earn audience empathy, even after revealing dark secrets and ugly natures. John Cusack is chilling and bleakly bawdy as a gruesomely pragmatic Hollywood healer. Robert Pattinson has a small role, but uses it to continue to carve out a path apart from his Twilight dreamboat niche, wallowing in a chance to be repulsive. Sarah Gadon (also of Cosmopolis) offers a turn so unnerving that she should be getting a call from Ryan Murphy for American Horror Story, as does Kiara Glasco in a small role as a divine ghost girl. But it's Julianne Moore who owns this movie.
Moore has long been heralded for the risks she'll take in cinema. She'll go nude. She'll do lesbian sex scenes. She'll say horrendous things as the script demands. She'll look ugly or look the fool. Here, she does all of the above while offering what I'd call one of the best performances of her career.
With her cruelly bleached out hair, petulant nature, and willful delusions of self-import Havana Segrand seems an older analogue to Lindsay Lohan. But Moore is by no means attempting an impersonation. Instead, she crafts a woman who is deeply damaged. She is shallow. She is selfish. She is vile. And in Moore's hands she is completely captivating from every snotty remark, shriek, and half-hearted attempt at self-improvement.
All in all, Maps to the Stars is challenging and bold. Of course it is, it's Cronenberg. But this auteur who revels in giving audiences something sickening does so this time with a critical eye at celebrity and its headquarters that makes for a deranged but wildly funny film. Maps to the Stars is mythic, macabre and merciless. And I loved every twisted minute of it.
Map to the Stars will make its U.S. Premiere at NYFF on Saturday Sept 27th.