“Maps to the Stars” is a perfect poisonous after-dinner mint to the Oscar season just concluded. Can you imagine the reactions of the Academy voters who awarded Julianne Moore a best actress statuette for “Still Alice” when they get a look at her other 2014 movie — the one in which she plays a monstrously egotistical Hollywood star? They’d repo that Oscar in a second. Moore did win best actress at Cannes last spring for “Maps,” but, then, the movie probably confirms everything the French already think about American culture.
Scripted by novelist-screenwriter Bruce Wagner (“I’m Losing You”), the film is a case of director David Cronenberg biting the hand that has never really wanted to feed him. Is this why the maker of “The Fly,” “A History of Violence,” and “Eastern Promises” has retreated to the rarefied precincts of “A Dangerous Method” (2011) and “Cosmopolis” (2012)? Because the movie business is so ghoulishly awful?
Moore’s Havana Segrand, a whining, self-absorbed basket case of a star who can’t admit her career is over, is just one of the characters who stagger through the film’s Beverly Hills wasteland. Her latest personal assistant, or “chore whore,” is a creepy mouseburger named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who claims to be from Jupiter — Florida — but has actually returned to LA from a mental hospital to stalk her own celebrity family. Agatha’s father,
Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a best-selling self-help guru given to emotionally rolfing clients like Havana; her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) is the teen star of “Babysitters 2” and himself a monster in the making. Mom Christina (Olivia Williams) manages Benjie’s career and sobs loudly in the bathtub.
Subsidiary characters pass to and fro, including a car service driver and aspiring screenwriter played by Robert Pattinson, last seen doing very bad things in a stretch limo in Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.” In this company, he’s a comparative innocent; the governing philosophy of “Maps to the Stars” is that success in the entertainment industry is a destroyer of souls on the order of Shiva. Benjie and Havana are terrors to those around them and terrified victims to themselves; both are haunted — literally — by ghosts, and both are headed for Lotusland apocalypse if someone else doesn’t get to them first.
The movie is intentionally overcooked, a pitch-black satire of an industry’s (and society’s) entitlement that makes its points in broad swipes that are alternately delicious and labored. Scenes of the adolescent Benjie on the town with friends, lesser stars and cling-ons, are chilling in their studied amorality, even if we’ve seen them before in films like “The Bling Ring” and “Palo Alto.” Much more scary-funny is Moore’s Havana, who sees three-way sex as career advancement, does a dance of delight when a rival’s child drowns in a pool — it means she’ll get the rival’s part in a film — and sends Alex out to buy Zoloft, Xanax, Kozy Shack pudding, and “those truffles from La Maison du Chocolat.” She’s a Norma Desmond for an era in which the pictures and the people in them are equally small.
A lot of the movie works, but enough doesn’t for “Maps to the Stars” to go down as a lost opportunity and one of this director’s braver missteps. A much-repeated patch of dialogue (“On all the flesh that says yes, on the forehead of my friends, on every hand held out, I write your name”) seems to have wandered over from a David Lynch film, and the film’s budgetary constraints show, especially in a climactic immolation that’s patently fake. The family secrets that tumble forth as the movie thunders to a close mirror each other too neatly. The movie’s an intentionally cold experience that ultimately loses its cool.
Still, “Maps to the Stars” is worth it for another fearless performance from Moore (what other actress would deliver a monologue while perched on the toilet?), for its acid throwaway lines (“For a disfigured schizophrenic, you’ve got the town pretty wired”), and for the movie’s grand contempt for all the values our popular culture holds dear. Even the Oscars in this film are bludgeons.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.