Director David Cronenberg sees monsters in everything: a pack of children (Brood), a television (Videodrome), entomology (The Fly), car wrecks (Crash), and even a woman with a vagina in her armpit (Rabid). It's not surprising that with his 22nd film, Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg is finally savaging Hollywood. It's surprising that he's waited four decades to do it.
Los Angeles is lucky that it's the mature, Oscar-aspiring 71-year-old Cronenberg—not the younger gross-out shockmeister—who's paid us a visit. (Maps to the Stars is the first movie in his career that the Canadian director has finally decided was worth leaving his native country to film on location.) In his body horror prime, he'd have delighted in exploding silicone lips and facelifts pulled so tight you can see the cracks in the skulls of the ladies who lunch.
Instead, when wannabe assistant-to-the-stars Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in L.A. by bus, the trauma's already happened. Seven years ago, her entire body was burned in a fire that licked up to the left half of her face, forcing her to dress like a prim dominatrix in leather gloves that cover her past the elbows. Cronenberg's Hollywood is forever being burned at the stake: fires also killed has-been Havana's (Julianne Moore) superstar mother, and nearly murdered child actor Benjie (Evan Bird) before he became a 13-year-old millionaire drug addict.
Maps to the Stars is a tabloid Greek tragedy. For every name-dropping mention of Harvey Weinstein and the Dalai Lama (“He's very cool, man,” boasts Havana), there's a plot twist ripped out of Aeschylus—think incest, more incest, and two angry ghosts. Benjie is haunted by a Make-A-Wish patient (Kiara Giasco) he lied to on her deathbed, while Havana's dead mom Clarice (Sarah Gadon) stalks her from the grave. Havana can't even have a drunken three-way without her mother taking over the other girl's body to mock her daughter's dream of remaking of her most famous classic.
Cronenberg doesn't need ghastly science experiments or telepathics who can explode heads. Our citizens are the monsters. (Fittingly, screenwriter Bruce Wagner wrote both Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.) Everyone is a creep, and the nicest guy in the movie is a dope: a limo driver named Jerome (Robert Pattinson) who fancies himself an aspiring actor/writer, can't keep his dick in his pants, and is considering converting to Scientology for “a career move.”
With a grisly ending inevitable, the fun is figuring out exactly who Cronenberg is skewering. Benjie's scrawny shoulders, black leather jacket and bad attitude spring from Justin Bieber. His enabling stage mom (Olivia Williams) is a ringer for Kris Jenner. And Havana with her frizzy orange-blonde hair, see-through shirts, and girlish up-talking is Lindsay Lohan fast-forwarded 15 years. (Or if you're feeling uncharitable, Lindsay Lohan today.)
Julianne Moore is remarkable. Havana is a beautiful beast, a creature who's so vain that she sends her assistant Agatha out for a dozen beauty cure-alls, and so base that she does it while farting on the toilet. In her massage therapy sessions with crack-pot guru Dr. Stafford (John Cusack), she cries about her mother sexually abusing her as a child, but when another actress' family tragedy puts her back in contention for a plum role, she dances around her mansion singing, “Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey. Goodbye!”
There's just enough blur between this nightmare and our reality to wonder if Cronenberg is serious. Early on, Agatha name-drops that she befriended Carrie Fisher on Twitter, and 20 minutes later Fisher herself bumps into Havana and sympathizes with her need to play her mother onscreen. “Every daughter should have that opportunity, right?” says Fisher, and the audience here at the Toronto Film Festival knowingly chuckled.
But if the industry people here in Canada really felt that way about Hollywood, half of them would deliberately miss their flight home to LA. Maps to the Stars is too overblown to feel like a targeted attack, yet too dour to work as satire. Cronenberg's caught the scent of the city—the ambition, the gossip, the destructive boredom—but hasn't bagged the monster. Los Angeles remains at large.
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