In its own disturbing, slithery way, the train-wreck watchable melodrama "Maps to the Stars" is as much a horror show as any that the film's director, David Cronenberg, has helmed over his long and provocative career.
This is due, in no small part, to the alarming script by Bruce Wagner, a writer best known as an envelope-pushing chronicler of Tinseltown ego and excess. He's crafted another aggressively soulless cautionary tale here about Hollywood narcissism — and it's a corker.
Set and partially shot in a sun-scorched Los Angeles (but also filmed — at times to the detriment of its look and vibe — in Toronto), "Maps" tracks a pair of parallel show biz stories that will intersect in ghastly ways. It's an unflinching, in-your-face, decidedly unpleasant journey that dares viewers to hop on a rather nightmarish tour bus.
First, there's the plight of Havana Segrand (played with game conviction by newly minted Oscar winner Julianne Moore), a beautiful, aging actress desperate to nab the part her legendary mother (Sarah Gadon) once played in a film that's about to be remade. Haunted by troubling visions of the apparently problematic mom who died in a mysterious fire, plus plagued by her own fading-star status, Havana quells her spiraling neuroses with sex, drugs and thinly veiled manipulations.
Then there's the Weiss family, a group that could redefine the word "dysfunctional." The Weisses include parents Stafford (John Cusack), a mega-successful self-help guru who's clearly bought his own press, and Christina (Olivia Williams), a tightly wound chain smoker who manages the lucrative acting career of their appalling, fresh-outta-rehab 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird).
However, it's the reappearance of the Weisses' long-institutionalized daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a schizophrenic burn victim with a crazed, unforgivable past, that hurtles the dual narratives toward their inevitable, tragic overlap.
Agatha, via online acquaintance Carrie Fisher (who appears as her droll self), arrives in L.A. and soon gets a job as Havana's new assistant, or "chore whore." Agatha, who will slowly try to reconnect with her wary family, doesn't know that Havana visits Dad Stafford for New Age-y, anti-anxiety physical therapy treatments.
Agatha has also befriended Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an attractive limousine driver and aspiring actor-writer whose approach to getting ahead may not be as understated as it seems.
Things all come crashing together in a series of startlingly bad behaviors, spilled secrets and devastating consequences. Although the physical and emotional brutality on display is tough to take, it's hard to dismiss the film's pitch dark ironies, painful truths and incendiary metaphors.
For better or worse (OK, emphasis on the latter), Cronenberg and Wagner prove a match made in Hollywood hell.
'Maps to the Stars'
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence, sexual content, graphic nudity, language, drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles; Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Regency South Coast Village 3, Santa Ana