Real talk: it's been quite a while since David Cronenberg made something truly satisfying. "Cosmopolis" has a few defenders, "A Dangerous Method" not so much, and while there's stuff to like in "Spider," "A History Of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," all felt compromised to some degree or other. Indeed, the truly unfiltered Cronenberg picture, one where bits fall off people or people try to have sex with orifices not traditionally used for any sexual act, seems like something of a distant memory at this point.
But good news is here, because the Canadian director's latest, "Maps To The Stars," just premiered at Cannes, and while it's substantially different from the "Videodrome"s and "Crash"es of the world, and probably rather more disposable, it's certainly the director's most twisted, and as a consequence, most deliciously entertaining film, in quite a long while.
Based on the novel by Bruce Wagner (who also wrote the script), the film opens with the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) back in Los Angeles after a long period away. Disfigured by burns from long ago (partially hidden by her ever-present elbow-length gloves, like an emo Holly Golightly), she tells limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson - behave yourself, comments section) that she's there to visit family, but shows little sign of actually doing so, instead getting a job as the PA (or 'chore whore,' as the film charmingly puts it) for fading movie star Havana (Julianne Moore).
Havana is the daughter of a drug-addled star who died young (Sarah Gadon), and is in the process of pursuing the role of her mom in a new remake of the film that made her name. She's also a client of self-help guru/therapist/masseur Stafford Weiss, whose wife Christina (Olivia Williams) manages the interest of their bratty, Bieberish 13-year-old son Benjie, star of the $800 million-grossing "Bad Babysitter." Oh, and as becomes clear swiftly, they're the family that Agatha was speaking of, and they have no interest in seeing her.
It sounds rather convoluted and out-there on paper, and Cronenberg does rather throw you in at the deep end (particularly for general audience, who may struggle with references to Chuck Lorre and first-dollar gross). But the script, while occasionally clunkily-worded, is smartly and speedily told, carefully parceling out its revelations and twists so that the two hours pretty much fly by.
A major part of the fun is the way that Cronenberg takes such obvious relish in biting the hand that feeds him (or at least used to feed him). If "Sunset Boulevard," "All About Eve" and Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon" took a bunch of prescription medication, had a two-day three-way and conceived a child, nine months later the child would look something like "Map To The Stars." There's a bridge-burning glee in the way that names, from Ryan Gosling to Paul Thomas Anderson, are dropped in the early stages. There is a slight sense that it could end up dating the movie, but it's filtered out as it moves into the second half.
And what a second half. Hollywood's seemed pretty rotten from the off in the film, but as Cronenberg exposes its stinking maggoty core of ghosts, sexual deviancy and cover-ups, the film takes on a nightmarish K-hole tone of its own, while remaining darkly, bitterly funny to the last. LA's rarely seemed as unappealing on screen, which is quite the feat.
The director's also been gifted a cracking cast for the material. Before you ask: no, Robert Pattinson isn't in it all that much (his role could argue be lifted from the film without too much problem), but yes, he's pretty good in it. Plus you get to see him as a sort of glam-rock version of Khan from "Star Trek," so there's that. Olivia Williams' role is similarly underwritten, but she does find new texture to the kind of ice maiden that she's riffed on before.
Mia Wasikowska's also playing in a similar sandbox to some of her previous work, but we could see her do this sort of slightly unhinged, slightly sweet character all day. And "The Killing" star Evan Bird makes a really impressive breakthrough as Benjie: he's very adept at playing a little shit, but somehow manages to find ways to make that little shit oddly sympathetic. Best of all are John Cusack, who gets the best role he's had in at least a decade, and tears into the chance to play a total monster, and Julianne Moore, who can sum up a lifetime of entitlement, vanity and tragedy in one Valley Girl-inflected line delivery.
It's not, it should be said, the director's most substantial work. The risk of making a film about superficiality is that it comes across as superficial itself, and while we had a blast with it, we do wonder how long it'll linger in the memory. And we have to confess that we weren't totally in love with the photography of longtime Cronenberg DoP Peter Suschitzky, and occasionally fantasized as to how the film would have looked with some fresher blood lighting it (the director's other frequent colleague Howard Shore does cracking work here).
But on the whole, the film is a sickly enjoyable wallow in the scandalous, fucked-up side of showbusiness, and a real return to form for the filmmaker. If nothing else, it'll rid you of any last desire to go on an actual LA star tour, and that alone is something to be thankful for. [B+]