Is it possible to essentially like a movie yet feel revulsion toward its script? David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars is clearly intended as a sharp satire of Hollywood ambition, vanity, avarice and emptiness, and in places it's smart and astringently funny. Yet it seems to be fighting its own bone structure. The script is by Bruce Wagner, a screenwriter, producer and novelist whose specialty, in bitter little books like Force Majeure and Dead Stars, is skewering Hollywood — he's like a jaundiced eye with a laptop attached. But unlike other novelists who've tackled Hollywood — among them Michael Tolkin, Terry Southern, Don Carpenter and the lesser-known John Kaye, author of the splendid twin novels Stars Screaming and The Dead Circus — Wagner has little or perhaps no affection for his subjects, and he too often shoots at the easy targets. For Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars is a different kind of body-horror movie, one whose sourness threatens to eat it away from the inside — it feels like its own version of They Came From Within, with the script as parasitic enemy.
The fact that Cronenberg directed almost works against Maps to the Stars: We expect greatness from him, not just proficiency, and he doesn't exactly have a gift for comedy, not even the black kind. But the movie still has the darkly glittering Cronenberg touch, even if it's just a light brushing. And he's lined up the right performers, chief among them a witheringly funny Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a Hollywood actress in desperate decline. Her hair is bleached an ungodly shade of nowhere blond; she's just had to fire her personal assistant, or, as she puts it, her "chore whore," and now faces the irksome task of finding another. The parts aren't rolling in as frequently as they used to, so she's frantically hoping she can play her own late, movie-star mother (who sexually abused her, natch) in a remake of her mom's big hit, despite the fact that she might be just a teensy bit over the hill for it.
Meanwhile, Mia Wasikowska's Agatha, a waifish burn victim with a scarred face, has just rolled into town from Florida, and the first person she meets is a loping charmer of a limo driver, Robert Pattinson's Jerome Fontana, who also happens to be an aspiring actor. Oh, and a screenwriter — whatever works. (As he prattles on to Agatha about the usual ins and outs of showbiz, he lets it drop that he's thinking of converting to Scientology, "just as a career move.") Agatha lands that job as Havana's assistant, but it soon becomes apparent that she has a secret past, which involves spoiled teen movie star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird).
If it all sounds like too much, plot-wise, it is. Wagner packs a lot into the script, as if banking on the idea that the more barbs you throw in, the more will stick. Still, in molding the material, Cronenberg gives the picture as much shape and heft as he can. He's graceful in navigating the movie's tricky tone shifts, from genially satirical to misanthropically acidic. And when Maps to the Stars clicks, it's great fun. The obvious comparison is to Robert Altman's The Player, but Cronenberg's approach is a little more sly, and drier, than Altman's: At its best, Maps to the Stars reminds me more of the unjustly forgotten 1994 The New Age, a bitter little bonbon written and directed by Tolkin (who also wrote The Player, both screenplay and novel), about Southern California types looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places.
And whenever Moore's onscreen — which, thankfully, is often — Maps to the Stars works like gangbusters. Moore is a terrific and fearless comic actress: She does one scene perched on the toilet, moaning to Agatha through the open door about how "backed up" she is by whatever this-or-that she's been taking, and would Agatha run to the store and pick up a little something to help? "I think it's called Quiet Moment," she says, and the more she natters, the longer her shopping list gets, expanding to include tampons and sweets from Maison du Chocolat ("You can get them at Neiman's"), an unholy combination if ever there was one.
But even with all that brassy hair, and arranged not-so-gracefully on the can, Moore never looks totally trashy, and her radiant dignity just makes everything funnier. In another scene, she turns an account of meeting one of the world's great spiritual dignitaries into an ace humblebrag. "I met the Dalai Lama," she says, nodding and taking a breath before zoning in on the kicker: "Very cool man." Moore, perched on her throne or not, is the queen of all she surveys in Maps to the Stars. You'll laugh until you find yourself needing a...Quiet Moment.