In the new film "Maps to the Stars," director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner chart a course through a Hollywood hellscape populated by damaged and dysfunctional people.
If that doesn't sound like the most pleasant journey, critics agree it isn't. And yet they say the satire starring Julianne Moore -- fresh off her Oscar best actress win for "Still Alice" -- Mia Wasikowska and John Cusack also has its virtues.
In a review for The Times, Gary Goldstein calls "Maps" a "train-wreck watchable melodrama" and an "unflinching, in-your-face, decidedly unpleasant journey that dares viewers to hop on a rather nightmarish tour bus." Wagner's script provides an "aggressively soulless cautionary tale," and Moore brings "game conviction" to her performance.
Goldstein adds, "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."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott says the film "belongs to the venerable tradition of movieland self-loathing." It's "suavely directed," with an "elegantly waspish script"; as for Moore, "Few actresses go as deep into their characters and push them so relentlessly toward the furthest edge of sympathy."
At the same time, Scott says, "it takes a perverse effort of will to love 'Maps to the Stars.' It's a little too chilly, and in some places too easy. But you may find yourself drawn back to it, and retracing its route from the familiar to the uncanny, from entertainment to revulsion, from dream to nightmare."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr gives another ambivalent review, writing, "The movie is intentionally overcooked, a pitch-black satire of an industry's (and society's) entitlement that makes its points in broad swipes that are alternately delicious and labored." A lot of the movie works, Burr says, "but enough doesn't for 'Maps to the Stars' to go down as a lost opportunity and one of this director's braver missteps."
More firmly in the negative column, USA Today's Claudia Puig writes: "If a pointless and nasty Hollywood satire filled with vile characters and no one to root for sounds like a good time, go see 'Maps to the Stars.'" … It feels like a sensational soap opera, where obnoxious people do terrible things to one another and it's hard to care."
On the other hand, New York magazine's David Edelstein writes: "Please don't bore me by complaining that the characters are 'unlikable.' The defense admits that the movie is indefensible. Just breathe in the aroma of decay and howl like a banshee."
For most critics, though, "Maps" elicits something between Edelstein's howl and Puig's shrug. As the Associated Press' Lindsey Bahr writes: "Maps to the Stars" is a strange and intoxicating mix of satire, ghost story and family melodrama, with a plot and ultimate point that remains hazy throughout despite an ardently linear structure.… Ultimately, 'Maps' may not lead anywhere satisfying, but it is a fascinating, worthy mess of a ride."