We will all agree, after watching David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, that Julianne Moore is the best. Yes, we already hold this truth to be self-evident (and her brand-new best actress Oscar for Still Alice only bolsters this known fact), but it’s always delightful to see her in action. And the action is plentiful in Cronenberg’s takedown of Hollywood, starring Moore as waning diva Havana Segrand—a self-involved product of Tinselturd who’s just as likely to find her Zen poolside as she is to throw her phone into the deep end in a rage-induced hissy fit.
Cronenberg, being Cronenberg, doesn’t flinch from poking at the visceral, and Moore rises to the task in fine form. This is a film where Moore strips down repeatedly, seduces Robert Pattinson in a limo, gets seemingly molested in a creepy therapy session, and noisily poops on a toilet while bossing around her personal assistant. She chews the scenery, and it suits her to no end. Somehow she remains improbably classy throughout. While Moore’s performance is clear as a bell, Maps to the Stars’ plot is decidedly less so—it’s a convoluted knot that unravels, bit by bit, to reveal the relationships of an expansive cast of characters in Los Angeles. It starts when mousy teenager Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), fresh off the bus from Florida, gets a ride from limo driver Pattinson. With severe facial burns and sporting long black gloves, she might be a loon as she name-drops Carrie Fisher and claims to be the inspiration for Bad Babysitter, a blockbuster kids’ movie. Maps goes on to revel in the Bieber-esque douchebaggery of Benjie (Evan Bird), child star and recovering drug addict, and his stage mom (Olivia Williams) and self-help-guru dad (John Cusack).
But most of the story focuses on Moore’s damaged Havana. As a child, she suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her mother—a beautiful actress whose lasting legacy is a cult film called Stolen Waters—and now, as Havana’s star is waning, she’s hell-bent on landing her dead mother’s role in a reimagining of the black-and-white classic. Wrap your head around that Greek tragedy. Eventually, Maps’ stories intertwine and play off each other in vicious cycles where the child becomes the mother and the victim becomes the abuser, like echoes funneling through the canyons of Los Angeles. It’s a haze of toxicity, backstabbing, and finagling for advantage in the good ol' dream factory. Then ghosts start popping up, and it’s somewhere in here that Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner’s film stops hitting its marks. (Havana, Agatha, and Benjie’s troubles are already verging on supernaturally awful without some on-the-nose haunting.) But it’s a minor misstep in a eerie, silly, and noirish film that's filled with the fading glamour of Sunset Boulevard, the maternal monstrosities of Mommie Dearest, and the sordidness of last week's tabloids. Cronenberg’s world of dark humor, violence, and sexual unease has a rotten Hollywood at its heart, peopled with dynasties of spoiled child stars, pyromaniacs, cults, and spirits. It’s a place that lets Moore shine bright—even, or maybe especially, when she’s dancing and singing, maniacally celebrating the death of a child.