Maps to the Stars
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Bruce Wagner is a screenwriter, producer and director whose specialty is highlighting Shadowland’s ugliest flaws and skewering its narcissistic stars. David Cronenberg is both revered and (by some) despised for illuminating human brutality and the body horrific on the big screen. Put them together and you get Maps to the Stars, a visceral satire of Hollywood that nestles down in a viper pit of fame, fortune, and self-righteous excess, more wasteland than red carpet.

As its title suggests, the film starts with a Hollywood outsider seeking her way in. Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Los Angeles by Greyhound, a waifish, fire-scarred woman in a T-shirt emblazoned with “I Was a Bad Babysitter” (a portentous clue worth noting). When Agatha snags a ride with chauffeur and aspiring actor Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), she claims to be in town to visit distant relatives. But first, she wants to do a little sightseeing and search for the homes of the stars.

It’s only when Jerome takes Agatha to the charred foundation of a famous Hollywood therapist’s house that we realize her connections to the city and its people are deeper than she has let on. Agatha confesses that she was the original bad babysitter, having worked for the family that used to live in the burned-down home.

Here is where the film takes off, introducing a nebulous web of characters from Agatha’s devilish past. There’s the aging, puffy-lipped, Lindsay Lohan-styled Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who takes on Agatha as her personal assistant. There’s also the Bieberesque teen-film idol Benji Weiss (Evan Bird), fresh out of rehab; Benji’s doting, enabling momager, Christina Weiss (Olivia Williams); and the mumbo-jumbo spewing therapist to the stars, Stafford Weiss, who is the patriarch.

None of these characters are particularly nice. One accidentally shoots a beloved pet as a result of being high and dumb; another rejoices in the drowning death of a competing actress’ small son. Still, despite their revolting, stomach-churning behavior, their stunts are the kind of train wreck you can’t help watching. It’s how they intersect and connect that occupies the majority of the film, weaving a tale that is part mythological, part supernatural (there are ghosts of dead mothers and children galore) and part surreal.

If it all sounds too much plot-wise, it probably is. This film is never easy, and it toes the line between hard-to-follow and too simplistic in its critique of fame and excess. The overriding message is one we’ve heard before: Hollywood is a sick place rife with incest, sexual abuse, drug-abusers, psychotics and megalomaniacs willing to rejoice in blood-spilling for their own advance.

It is not quite like anything Cronenberg has done before, but still fits sublimely within his canon. If you can stick with the melodrama riding underneath the sometimes vapid, sometimes nonsensical plot, it’s worth the final payoff, which closes a disturbing full circle. Others can find a silver lining in the first-rate performances of the cast (notably Wasikowska, Moore and Bird), who deliver knockout turns that create a sense of authenticity and sympathy for the characters, despite their deep psychosis and spoiled-brat behavior. For all its celebrity slams, Maps offers an ounce more compassion than other Cronenberg films. Still, the Canadian director may never eat lunch in Hollywood again—not that he ever wanted to in the first place.