There are very few things I can say with absolute certainty about "Maps To The Stars," a strange and arch and disquieting picture that is broadly comic at times, intellectual stimulating at others but is altogether impenetrable as a standard narrative.
I am, however, sure of this: it was probably an awkward set. Robert Pattinson, who has a small but crucial role, has to say snide things about celebrities who haven't really earned their standing. Unlike other movies that skewer Hollywood, this goes beyond satire into just being vicious. The movie biz is depicted as an incestuous and scarred place, and while "The Player" and "Entourage" have conditioned us to accept cynics and scoundrels, director David Cronenberg gives us aliens.
"I'm from Jupiter," says Mia Wasikowska's Agatha, the closest thing to an anchor in this weird world. She means Florida, but she may as well be an astral visitor to this foreign place that seems to have its own rules. Agatha is, as you'll eventually learn, the older sister of Benjie (Evan Bird), a 13 year-old superstar of the massively successful "Bad Babysitter" franchise. Benjie at first seems like a smug, Bieber-esque bastard bossing around his sycophant handlers, but compared to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) he's positively saintly. She's an unhinged, puerile, selfish and deeply damaged actress of a certain age living in the shadow of her mother, a movie star who had the good fortune to die young. Segrand is a client of Benjie's father (John Cusack) who practices a form of scream therapy massage. She also just hired Agatha as her new personal assistant, based on a recommendation from Carrie Fisher (played by Carrie Fisher.)
Fisher adds more fuel to the sci-fi fire, as does the wanna-be actor Pattinson plays getting a bit part in a "Star Trek"-like show, as a Vorbalid (which links this film, scripted by Bruce Wagner, to his earlier film "I'm Losing You," for those of you who really like deep cut trivia.) With these and other characters established in their loose connections, there are some mysterious secrets to uncover, but it's the least interesting thing in the movie. What works – in addition to the comedy (some of which is outright filthy) – is seeing everyone struggle to find mooring in a sea of complete moral chaos.
David Cronenberg's last film, "Cosmopolis," was a jaundiced view of the world of finance. Whereas that picture had a pervasive air conditioning hum that kept its surrealism contained (much like the island of New York) this poke at tinsel town is all about Los Angeles' sprawl. Comparisons to the other David's film, "Mulholland Drive," are certainly apt, in that there is an inner layer of howling desperation, though they have very little formal similarities.
But like that picture, this one will be off-putting to many audience members. There are large stretches where it feels like the movie is vamping, or that it has nothing to say. Julianne Moore is hilarious as the vapid and coarse starlet (you'll see some things of her you'll never be able to unsee) but isn't this character a little bit of shooting fish in a barrel?
Cronenberg's map doesn't lead to a satisfying destination in a typical story sense, but it is a remarkable quest. For a movie that has so many problems, it is one of the more watchable ones. When the character meant (possibly) to be the Cronenberg stand-in sighs and admits that "people are going to be upset," it's hard not to give this entire endeavor the benefit of the doubt.