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Maps to the Stars: Cronenberg’s Best Film in a Decade

“I started making plans to kill my own kind,” Violent Femmes

David Cronenberg is an artist unafraid of the dark side. One of the wondrous things about his work is just how deep and dark he will go. The Fly is an unexpected masterpiece about the agony of love and the arrogance of man. Dead Ringers is a little closer to the territory we see now with Maps to the Stars, probably Cronenberg’s best film in at least a decade, or thereabouts. Here, working with the talented literary satirist of Hollywood culture, Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg has hit his stride in a big way, nailing our celebrity obsessed culture and sickness it breeds, right to the wall.

Maps to the Stars is a labyrinth of oddly tossed-together characters, or you could say, archetypes. Nothing is ever what it appears, however, as this is the land of make-believe. Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand a 40ish actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose career apparently hinges on getting a role playing her dearly departed mother in a remake of the film that made her mother famous. “Stunt casting,” is the fear the producers have in casting her but it is all she wants in life.

She needs a “chore whore,” so she somehow finds Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), who became friends with Carrie Fisher on Twitter (yes, really). Agatha does a good job for Havana and the story unfolds from there. Who Agatha really is in part of a family that includes John Cusack as the father, Olivia Williams as the mother, and the showstopper, Evan Bird (remember his name) as the child star Benjie Weiss, whose bad behavior is leading him to the brink.

They are all connected the way many people in Hollywood often are: they know someone who knows someone who knows someone. This is a world where everyone is on the make and shameless about it. Once reality-TV was created and our celebrity obsessed culture bloomed to its saturation point, the only thing that mattered is whether you were “somebody.” In this film, and in the reality of Hollywood now, being a “somebody” could mean you are Kim Kardashian, famous for a sex tape. You are Kelly Clarkson, famous for being on American Idle. You are Justin Bieber, a bad boy YouTube superstar.

This wouldn’t be so bad, of course, if the rest of the city wasn’t also buying into all manner of self-obsession. Cusack plays a self help guru who “has the answers” to everyone’s problems and works them out violently (on Julianne Moore) to help them heal. All he cares about, all anyone here cares about (save Wasikowska) is how they can grab onto one tiny piece of the pie. The desperation is palpable. The ugliness, everywhere.

The only thing that prevents these characters from selling their oils entirely to Satan is that many of them begin to see visions. Their unconscious minds, or their moral compass, produce spirits and those spirits somehow haunt them, Scrooge style, into realizing the errors of their ways. Does that fix things? Well, no. They are seen as just a buzz kill.

To that end, Maps to the Stars Home dips elegantly into the surreal and the real, bobbing in and out of both effortlessly. You never see the strings. Much of this is clearly due to the writing — this is one hell of a script. But it is also a well-oiled machine, with actors knowing exactly what tone is required and a director who, of course, can’t help but dive right in.

That makes Maps of the Stars probably the most exciting, unexpected surprise of the film festival so far. The three best in main competition have each been excellent in their own ways — that would be Mr. Turner, The Homesman and now, Maps to the Stars which may be the best of the lot. The current state of celebrity obsession was handled beautifully in last year’s The Bling Ring. But Sofia Coppola’s subtly as a filmmaker seemed lost on the critics. There can be no such doubt about Cronenberg’s vision of how Hollywood has collapsed into itself, eating its young, leaving no one left with a clean conscience.

The acting once again brings strong women roles to the forefront, as both The Homesman and Eleanor Rigby (not in main competition) have done. Here, though, they’re afforded more complexity, the luxury of being bad. Julianne Moore does what she always does as an actress — throws herself into it completely. Is there another actress who takes bigger risks than Moore does? In this film, though, she finds that certain kind of desperate actress that has probably been around since the beginning of Hollywood. With her Vicodin and Cozy Shack puddings, her mediation, self-help books, she’s shameless in her desire to keep working, to be valued beyond the fringe.

Moore has clearly spent enough time around women like this to really nail the type. Anyone who lives in LA knows the type. It isn’t her fault, particularly, as she’s only doing what’s required of her in a cut-throat business that fosters the very desperation that ultimately destroys many of its willing participants.

John Cusack is appropriately creepy as the father, and Olivia Williams is solid. To say any more about them is really to spoil things. Robert Pattinson has a very small part, but gets a love scene, of course, to satisfy his fans. Pattinson and Cronenberg are developing a nice collaboration, however, and here’s to hoping we get to see more from the two of them.

The movie belongs to its three leads — Moore, Pattinson, and Wasikowska who has never been better. Here, she’s the film’s only glimpse of a moral center. But there is a mystery to her performance. So much of who she is has been buried so deeply it might never come out. Wasikowska expertly reveals some of that mystery, briefly, but you never know if she’s telling the truth or if she’s just crazy. Finally, it must be said that Evan Bird’s scenes are among the film’s most entertaining, amid many. Much of this has to be credited to Wagner. If you’ve ever read his books you sort of know what to expect here. But Bird is just off the charts brilliant as this child star delivering a brutal assault of snark.

The poor guy. If there is a victim here, it’s Benjie, and he knows this of course. All his life, he’s been on a relentless pursuit of fame when he wasn’t anywhere near ready. He’s only 13 and already he’s been to rehab, had casual sex, and made 350,000 per episode on a television show.

Maps to the Stars might be disturbing to those who don’t yet realize the corrupt and repugnant culture of celebrity we’re all sort of living through right now. Maybe you had to be alive before everything went to shit. Or maybe you look around and you see nothing wrong. But there is plenty wrong. It is virtual insanity, particularly as the world, and our country, falls apart around us.

Wagner slips in the most exquisite prose which blows through the film like the Santa Ana winds scented with jasmine, California style. It is in these moments that the film is elevated beyond black comedy into existential surrealism. It is a snake eating its own tail and one that probably requires some rumination as to what it all could possibly mean. But audiences are probably up for it, particularly after the success of True Detective.

Graphic, sexual, brutal and very nearly soulless — these are hallmarks of the best of the films by Cronenberg, the master of alienation. So many of his characters just want a normal life. In this film that’s Wasikowska — but she sees too much. She knows too much.

Maps to the Stars is about reaching upwards to something you’re never supposed to touch. You can buy a map but you’re never really meant to see what’s beyond the gates. We need stars to remain where they are — unimaginably far away, shimmering in the night sky. But a star is really just a ball of fire. If you get too close you get burned. This might not be the happy ending we’re seeking, but it’s the one we deserve.