The only sympathy available to most of the characters in director David Cronenberg’s latest deadpan creation, “Maps to the Stars,” is of the same kind you might offer a monster. Like the wretch at the center of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” they aren’t necessarily at fault for being utterly repulsive. After all, they were born and bred, not in a lab as a result of scientific hubris, but in a much seedier, greedier place: Hollywood, where horrible people are produced just as often as horror films. Cronenberg, from a script by Bruce Wagner, has made one of the latter about the former. But by setting his film within the claws of the movie industry, he’s twisted the genre. Unlike Shelley’s disfigured monster, who hid from the world, Cronenberg’s are entitled, shameless. They walk in broad daylight, and they look like Julianne Moore and Robert Pattinson.
There are a whole host of others deformed by the secrets and pressures of the film business, including a husband and wife played by John Cusack and Olivia Williams, but “Maps” centers on Mia Wasikowska’s character, Agatha, the most human of the bunch, who has actual, physical scars. Recently released from a mental hospital, she returns to Los Angeles to make amends with her family members, who’ve disowned her for burning down their Hollywood home and nearly killing her younger brother many years before.
The brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), is the bread winner of the family, a damaged and delightfully vulgar teen sensation and the star of a lucrative film franchise: “We did $780 million worldwide. People don’t realize that,” he tells one fan. Bird delivers the line with the solemnity of a reluctant savior. He’s Justin Bieber, 90 days sober.
Wasikowska and Bird ground this satire by playing characters who resemble real human beings. Moore’s character — a fading actress auditioning for a remake of a film her mother starred in before she died — has no regard for anything beyond her own relevance, while Agatha’s parents dread their daughter’s visit, fearing it could destroy the success they created in her absence. They are not nice people, but it’s a joy to watch these actors play exaggerated versions of Hollywood stereotypes: morally despicable divas, prima donnas and sexual deviants.
Though Wagner’s script lacks momentum — it’s tough to craft a satisfying narrative arc when your characters are incapable of changing — the one-liners are biting: “I was thinking about converting, just as a career move,” Pattinson’s character, a limo driver and would-be screenwriter, tells Agatha in an early scene when Scientology enters the conversation. Later, Benjie is asked if he is making a sequel to his smash hit. Of the film’s producers, he says, “They made an offer my mother couldn’t refuse.”
Cronenberg’s direction is deft. The body horror for which he’s so well known makes an unexpected appearance here, in a scene that is as effective as anything he’s done before. He frames the moment in a way that changes how we feel about one character as it reaffirms our conclusions about another. As graphic as it is, it evokes the old-fashioned notion that true beauty, even in this age of surfaces, remains on the inside.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on March 5, 2015.