Thursday, February 26, 2015

Another look at a morally bankrupt LA

Director David Cronenberg visits the land of palm trees, money and greedy ambition.

It's impossible for a director as talented as David Cronenberg to make a movie that doesn't boast a few interesting wrinkles.

The opening of Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars -- a movie written by novelist Bruce Wagner -- has an eerie, otherworldly dimension that lets us know that the guy behind the camera has an edgy gift.

We feel a bit dislocated by the sight of passengers riding a bus at night. Who are they? Where are they headed? We feel as if the movie is about to awaken from a dream.

It does -- and that's the trouble.

The promise of Cronenberg's opening quickly evaporates as a muddled series of LA-based story lines emerges.

We begin to realize that Maps is taking aim at Hollywood with all the trappings such a project suggests: amorality, rampant egotism, wanton sex, obscene amounts of money, half-baked guru figures and, yes, even incest.

Meeting the movie's characters can feel like paging through a yearbook of sickos, the presumed intention here.

Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a monstrously successful hit TV show. At 13, Benjie's already a veteran of rehab. He's also an obnoxious little tyrant and one of the least likable characters I've seen in a film in some time.

Benjie's parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams) aren't much better. Mom manages Benjie's career, and endures the humiliations her son heaps on her. Dad writes self-help books and also does the kind of body work that's supposed to release buried pain with a push here or a contortion there.

Actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is trying to restart her career by vying for a part in a remake of a movie originally made by her late mother, now something of a Hollywood cult figure. In what amounts to one more perverse twist, we learn that mom sexually abused Havana as a kid.

Perhaps Cronenberg wanted to find the truth in these characters by pushing them to extremes. They are capable of showing traces of humanity, but they seldom stray too far from their inner monsters.

The ingredients in Cronenberg's pot eventually are brought together by the arrival in Los Angeles of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a character whose role in the drama gradually reveals itself.

Craziness seldom needs embellishment, but that doesn't stop this story from showing us that at least two of its characters (Benjie and Havana) are haunted by ghosts. They are unsettled by dead people.

Cronenberg's collage of tawdry ingredients has some sharp and telling moments -- the faux chumminess between Havana and a rival actress, for example -- but the movie never really rises to the level of strong satire or true trash.

Maps to the Stars wanders instead through a haze of developments that feel as if they're being dragged across the screen in hopes of leaving an indicting stain.

Two additional comments:
-- Robert Pattinson, who appeared in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis -- another movie that didn't really work -- plays a chauffeur who aspires to be a screenwriter and actor.

-- Moore holds nothing back in her portrayal of an actress whose life is marred by desperation, psychological torment and character flaws. Did anyone think the recent Oscar winner couldn't give this kind of performance?

Maps to the Stars seems to want to tell us that Hollywood is less a place than a contagious disease. But spending time with the folks who've caught this disease isn't as revealing as you might imagine.

Look, I'm a Cronenberg fan. I consider him to be one of the smartest directors I've ever met, and I've admired much of his work. I look forward to seeing his next movie, and plan to regard this unrewarding Day of the Locust descendant as a detour.

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