There is a moment when satire turns into pure spleen. That moment comes pretty early in David Cronenberg’s disjointed Maps to the Stars. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a child star with the dead but predatory eyes of a middle-aged addict, lashes out at his manager. Benjie lets loose a stream of insults notable for being not just petty but anti-Semitic and homophobic to boot. It’s a terribly clumsy moment (see how awful actors can be), the satirical equivalent of a punch to the nose. Much of the film that follows is played in much the same key of bilious hate, the only variant being the talent of those spitting out the lines.
The script by Bruce Wagner is a messy and stapled-together thing that winds together a dysfunctional family saga with a blunt, full-frontal assault on the horrors of the Hollywood life. There are also some ghosts and incest thrown in, possibly in the mistaken belief that the soul-killing realities of life in the entertainment factory wouldn’t be awful enough. At the center is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), freshly returned to the Southland, with a mysterious agenda. She’s a spooky slip of a wraith who wears long black gloves to cover her burn scars and is at once mousy and knife-like, the kind of creature who can worm her way into the lives of people who pride themselves on being able to read others. She’s also the one who will set fire to the falling-down house of matches the film’s other principals have built for themselves.
The faux-naif Agatha works a connection to Carrie Fisher (playing herself) to get hired as assistant to fading movie-star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, flying at full throttle). Her new boss is in the middle of a pill-and-paranoia-fueled flameout in which she’s campaigning for the lead in a remake of the film that made her abusive actress mother famous. Havana tries to work out her issues with Reiki sham artist and TV shaman Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). He is father to Agatha and Benjie, husband to chainsmoking stage mom Christina (Olivia Williams), and an all-around snake-oil salesman with a narcissist-enabling line of New Age patter and a calculator for a heart. Hovering around the story is Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a struggling writer and actor working as a limousine driver. While something of a blowhard, he’s the closest thing the film has to a seemingly decent human being; perhaps not coincidentally, he could be seen as a stand-in for Wagner, who worked as a driver while getting his start in Hollywood.
Ostensibly, Maps to the Stars tracks Agatha’s attempt to reunite with her family after being banished for setting the fire that nearly killed her brother. She is also like some unassuming Greek fury come to wreak vengeance on all the sinners whose ugly little clawings for status and hypocritical pretenses crowd the screen. There should be a damning dark energy to all that we’re witnessing here. But all the in-joke dialogue (all those off-hand references to the Dalai Lama from mercenary people who consider themselves enlightened) and gothic touches make for a strange and ineffective mixture. Details like Agatha’s recitation of Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberty” (“On my school notebooks / On my desk and on the trees / On the sands of snow / I write your name”) are just gilding on an empty core. For all the sound and fury in Wagner’s script, none of it approaches the Proustian density of darkness captured in his novels like I’m Losing You and Still Holding. The only partial exception to that is Havana’s downward spiral of lacerating shame and cruelty, embodied by Moore as another of the high-strung time bombs she has specialized in of late.
For his part, Cronenberg stays curiously in the background. Unlike the cool professionalism of A Dangerous Method or the psychedelic cyberpunk of Cosmopolis, the Canadian master of the perverse plays this Grand Guignol material anonymously, with a strangely loose handle over the mostly lifeless performances. The flatness of tone might be an attempt to capture the ennui of something like Bret Easton Ellis and Paul Schrader’s 2013 collaboration The Canyons, but if so the target is missed. Scene after scene that should sting or haunt, just lie there inert. Less outrageous than petulant, Maps to the Stars is an insider’s account of Hollywood inhumanity with nothing new or particularly unique to report.