David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” features, in no particular order: a teen pinup looking to do violence to his child co-star, a moment when an actress celebrates a tragic death because of the casting implications, and lines such as an exasperated “This is Garry Marshall, not Bertolucci.”
Ask Cronenberg about the Hollywood satire of it all, though, and he plays coy.
“This movie is not only about Hollywood and the movie business,” he told reporters Monday shortly before the film’s public premiere. “You can set it in Silicon Valley or Wall Street or any place people are desperate and ambitious and greedy and fearful. You can really set it anywhere and have it [offer] the same tone and ring of truth.”
Maybe so, but it doesn’t hurt that Cronenberg has chosen Hollywood as the place to wield his scalpel.
Talking shortly after Cronenberg, John Cusack, part of the film’s extensive ensemble, takes the view that Hollywood is particularly in the hot seat in the film.
“There’s something about L.A. and the fame and the hunger and the need for acknowledgment that’s a little more infantile,” he said. “It felt a little -- familiar that way.”
He might have a case.
Cronenberg’s latest tells a set of overlapping stories revolving around the Weiss family. There’s Bieberesque child-actor twit Benjie (Evan Bird); Benjie’s dad and Weiss patriarch Stafford (Cusack), a New Age guru who takes out earnest TV ads and thinks life stresses can be found, and relieved, in places like the thigh; Stafford’s wife and — gulp — sister Cristina (Olivia Williams); and psychiatrically disturbed daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), back in town after a long stay in a mental hospital to unleash another dose of the crazy.
Of course she’s in good company in this place: Washed-up actress Havana (Julianne Moore) is campaigning in unseemly fashion to land a role in a remake of a film her mother made famous before she died in a tragic fire. (In a Cronenbergian turn of crazy-meets-crazier, Agatha winds up as Havana’s assistant.)
Robert Pattinson turns up too. The “Cosmopolis” star this time moves to the front of the limo as a driver who hopes to be an actor and writer. He is one of the better-adjusted people on this island of misfit egos, though that isn’t saying much.
As the film unfolds, each character’s narcissism expands to the breaking point, or at least the point where it could be breaking others.
Based on Bruce Wagner’s cutting script -- Wagner is a novelist and Tracey Ullman collaborator known for his penetrating observations on Hollywood -- “Maps” blows icy comedy for much of its run time (the occasional supernatural apparition notwithstanding, much of this wouldn’t feel out of place in a Christopher Guest movie), then takes a turn to the physically macabre when things get violent and sexual and weird toward the end. As my seatmate at the screening said after one of those third-act turns: “I’d almost forgotten I was watching a Cronenberg movie.”
Moore said she found the Hollywood material effective because it satirized not just an industry but a psychology. “There is something funny and sad about people consistently missing the mark,” she said. “That's what the whole movie is about, looking without instead of looking within.”
The movie has already become something of a social media sensation, trending immediately on Twitter after its media screening Sunday night. When it comes out in U.S. theaters, probably later this year, “Maps” is likely to divide audiences. Some might see it as a sharp satire, others as a superficial broadside. It is, however, impossible to avoid the life-imitating-art aspect of outsized celebrities starring in a movie about outsized celebrity.
As if the point wasn't sufficiently underlined, reporters on Monday directed a series of semi-absurd questions at Pattinson, one of which involved which limo-set sex partner was better, Moore’s character in this film or Juliette Binoche in previous Cronenberg collaboration “Cosmopolis.” Pattinson looked bashful, laughed, then tried a joke that they “were both sevens.” If you read all of this in a script you’d say it was too neat and insist the writer remove it.
“Maps” is also, incidentally, the world’s first melodrama/Hollywood satire/supernatural horror/psychokiller movie.
Despite the evident humor in the film, Cronenberg on Monday continued his penchant for playful evasions in which he conceded little to reporters who posited he was trying something different.
“I think all my movies are funny, and I think this one is no exception,” he said when asked about the shift to satire. “People have said ‘you should really make a comedy’ and I say ‘I've made nothing else.’”
Reporters weren’t completely buying it; it’s hard to see a piece such as this as a natural extension of movies such as “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers.” Still, Cronenberg got the last word when asked if a scene in which a film trophy is wielded as a weapon by one character serves as a metaphor for how award season brutalizes actors.
“Is the award a metaphor?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, it’s made out of brass. If she was striking her with a metaphor, I don’t think she’d have been able to [hurt] her.”