Early on in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13-year old child star fresh off a summer in rehab, visits a young fan named Cammy (Kiara Glasco) in her hospital room. She is dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though a misinformed Benjie asks her how she contracted AIDS. The scene is an absurdly sexualized tableau: Cammy is roused from her slumber, her flesh pale, eyes bright, hair damp with perspiration and wildly askew. And in case viewers are uncertain of this reading of the scene, the girl’s greeting, “I didn’t think you’d come,” makes its point clear.
Cronenberg’s film, from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, who also turned the story into a novel, “Dead Stars” in 2012, is a critical portrait of Hollywood culture, but moments like this lead one to wonder just how wide the filmmaker intended to cast his satirical net. Benjie is the son of Christina (Olivia Williams) and Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the latter a psychologist and television self-help guru. The Weisses also have a daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who was exiled to a psychiatric facility in Florida after she drugged her brother and then set fire to the family home seven years earlier during a psychotic episode. Oh, and, spoiler alert: Christina and Stafford Weiss are also brother and sister, though, as they are quick to point out, they were raised apart and it was only after they became romantically linked that they discovered their familial ties.
The movie opens with Agatha’s surreptitious return to Los Angeles, ostensibly to make amends with her family, finding work as the personal assistant—”chore whore”—of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging Hollywood actor desperate to rekindle her career by starring in the remake of the film that made her late mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) a screen legend, and falling under the romantic sway of Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a handsome limousine driver and aspiring actor. For her part, Segrand is haunted by the memory of her mother and the sexual abuse to which she subjected her, and is under the clinical care of Dr. Weiss.
Economies of power and sexuality operating within the Weiss clan plumb depths that Freud himself might not even have imagined. Consider: When their then-adolescent daughter evinced signs of her nascent schizophrenia, putting the entire family, but most especially their already high-grossing young son, at risk, the parents calculated on which side their proverbial bread was buttered and simply cut Agatha loose in order to preserve young Benjie’s burgeoning fame and earning power. Here too is Julianne Moore’s Segrand: a fiftysomething woman (described by one of Benjie’s bros as a “GMILF”) perennially in the shadow of her legendary-to-the-point-of-cult-status mother navigating a Hollywood in which a 23-year old actress is described as “menopausal.”
The ignominious status of women—particularly women of a certain age—in Hollywood is something that warrants critical consideration. But Cronenberg, the turn-of-the-21st-century master of humorless satire, devoid of affect, misses the boat, and the condescension with which he approaches his subject reduces Segrand—and indeed virtually every character in the film—to a figure of ridicule. The cavernous emptiness at the heart of “Maps to the Stars” notwithstanding, there is quite a bit to like in Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Agatha. The Australian actor brings a tremendous range and depth to what might otherwise be an almost farcical character, threading a tense balance of intelligence and naiveté, determined sexuality, and wounded delicacy into what is, ultimately, a pretty awful movie. The scars on her face, the legacy of the fire that earned her exile from her family, are a nice, Cronenbergian touch, but they are here inversely related to analogous disfigurements in earlier movies, such as “The Fly,” or “Dead Ringers”: Agatha’s stigmata are what mark her as human in a profoundly alienated, if superficially flawless world.
And what about Robert Pattinson, making his second appearance in a Cronenberg movie, following 2012’s “Cosmopolis,” again conspicuously in a limo, though this time from the perspective of the servant class? One is almost tempted to presume that the filmmaker erected this entire lurid edifice just to get the “Twilight” star back in the saddle, as it were, guilelessly acceding to the elder Segrand’s wish that he take her from behind. But there is a certain deer-in-the-headlights quality to Pattinson’s performance here, as though everything that is unfolding before his eyes is making him second-guess every decision that has led him to this particular moment in his life.
For all its overtly psychoanalytic messiness and high-toned nihilism, one can discern a direct link between “Maps to the Stars” and the director’s previous two films: 2011’s “A Dangerous Method,” an exploration of the agonistic relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the attendant birth of psychoanalysis, and 2012’s “Cosmopolis,” a spectacular failure of an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, in which the sociopathy of venture capital ruts absurdly in the back of a limousine. The real predecessor of “Maps to the Stars,” however, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (Cronenberg even name-checks the filmmaker when Segrand’s agent describes the director of the remake of her mother’s film as “no P. T. Anderson”). But whereas Anderson’s Hollywood melodrama is a deeply personal film that, for all its flaws, packs tremendous emotional force, Cronenberg eschews affect in favor of acid social critique and straight lurid spectacle. And although there is certainly a wealth of material for Cronenberg to anatomize with his satirical knife, here, the grotesque becomes simply gross.