Director dissects Hollywood in 'Maps to the Stars'

Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner tell intersecting L.A. stories

In the lightly fictionalized Hollywood of the satirical drama Maps to the Stars, a comedy called Bad Babysitter reigns as box office king. A subplot involves the sequel's troubled production, but Maps director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner equally appreciate the title's symbolic value. Arguably the majority of Hollywood product serves as a bad babysitter and poor moral example to the mass audience in America and the rest of the world.

With Maps featuring multiple story lines involving the children of Hollywood power players, showbiz emerges as the worst environment for raising a kid — or, alternately, the best long-term incubator if you want a deeply damaged adult. Cronenberg made his name as the auteur of such cerebral body-horror films as Videodrome and The Fly, and whereas the terrors of Maps are mostly internal, it overcomes some spotty storytelling to reach a disturbing conclusion.

Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha Weiss, an impulsive, enigmatic young woman who wears long black gloves to conceal the burns on her body. Arriving in Southern California from Florida, she quickly strikes up a flirty acquaintance with an aspiring actor (Robert Pattinson, who played a limo passenger in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis) who works as a limo driver. Agatha parlays an online friendship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself) to get a job as personal assistant to fading movie actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore).

An emotional runaway train that lost her brakes long ago, Havana lobbies hard for a starring role in a remake of the film that won her late mother an Oscar nomination. Havana also has intense massage therapy sessions with vaguely defined celebrity psychologist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack, using detachment to sinister effect). The scenes have moments of touchy-feely humor, such as Stafford's announcement, "I'm going to press on a personal history point"— but mostly play as Havana's anguished meltdowns. Cronenberg presents the moments in a cold, clinical fashion, reminiscent of the psychoanalytic scenes of Kiera Knightley's jutting underbite in A Dangerous Method.

Moore, who received an Academy Award for Still Alice, goes even further out as Havana. You wonder if Moore can switch the raw emoting on and off, or if she goes through a wringer every time she steps onto the set.

Another major story line involves Stafford's son Benjie (Evan Bird), the eponymous teen star of Bad Babysitter, who's trying to stay in recovery despite a drug problem. Bird effectively presents Benjie as, at once, a spoiled piece of work and a deeply sad young man struggling under the weight of so much pressure and attention.

Former Harper's magazine editor Russell Lynes once said, "Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it." Similarly, all directors and screenwriters seem to have Hollywood exposés on their laptops, and the market needs only so many of them. Wagner tends to specialize in diagnosing Los Angeles' social ills, particularly in the cult TV miniseries "Wild Palms." At first, Maps seems like yet another drama about seemingly random Los Angelenos whose lives intersect, with Moore's casting being a slight nod to her films Short Cuts and Magnolia, arguably two of the more prominent titles in the genre.

But rather than offer facile observations about personal connectedness, Maps' story line tightens with every scene, building to some dark conclusions about how people pass mental illness and figurative demons along to one another. The film features one scandalous revelation too many, and at times presents the ideas of human alienation with a heavy hand. But Maps' dark morality tale would be a compelling story even without the backdrop of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

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