David Cronenberg gets to thoroughly explore hallucinations, one of his favorite themes (see 1983’s Videodrome), in his latest film, “Maps to the Stars.” It’s those things you think you see that may turn out to be most real of all. Hollywood comes under scrutiny in a most diabolical way as we follow the steady disintegration of the film’s characters. And, among the doomed players, no one is more set for destruction than Agatha Weiss (played by Mia Wasikowska).
The screenplay by Bruce Wagner offers up a delicious send-up to the entertainment industry, its nefarious machinations, and dehumanizing power. Everyone is quite sick in the head here. And the cure is surely not to be found from a Dr. Phil parody, Dr. Stafford Weiss (played John Cusack). It’s his family that is at the epicenter to the disaster that awaits. And it is his daughter Agatha who, upon her arrival to Los Angeles, brings back all the ugliness and chaos to a family in crisis. At 18, she can no longer be held at bay in some Florida rehab clinic. All the chickens have come home to roost.
Cronenberg gives LA the treatment: No one can function naturally in Los Angeles. Everyone has a scheme. Everyone is afraid. Everyone seeks the artificial light. They zig and zag from swank homes to movie sets to Rodeo Drive. Everything being relative, a breakfast burrito can suddenly become the most prized possession, at least for a moment. Nothing shines for long in LA.
At the heart of the Weiss family is the younger child, Benjie Weiss (played by Evan Bird). In contrast to his father’s role as a therapist, Benjie, at 13, is an unstable child actor close to going down in flames. His dad, however, is not too far away from burning out himself as his practice is more of a carnival sideshow than anything serious. Rounding out the family circle is Christina Weiss (played by Olivia Williams). Her stage mother is on similar shaky ground.
The catalyst, and the destroyer, is Agatha. Wasikowska commands the screen with exceptional creepiness. It is comparable to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler.” Through a series of insinuations, she manages to stake out a decent vantage point to the proceedings as a personal assistant to a fading movie actress, Havana Segrand (played by Julianne Moore). And Segrand proves a perfect match as she’s as crazed as Agatha in her own way. For one thing, she keeps battling with hallucinations of her mother, Clarice Taggart (played by Sarah Gadon). And she is certainly not alone when it comes to seeing things.
As a comeuppance, Benjie is spooked by what seems like the ghost of a young girl he was rude to during a publicity stop at a hospital. Benjie has been a very bad boy and yet he struggles with that. Old and jaded way beyond his years, he will often display poignant self-awareness. Bird delivers an impressive performance. And, while he may not be the star of the film in terms of name recognition, he clocks in a lot of screen time and proves to be the essential counterpoint to Agatha.
Another result of Agatha’s sly maneuvering is her dating a handsome aspiring actor with a day job as a chauffeur, Jerome Fontana (played by Robert Pattinson). This is Pattinson’s second Cronenberg film (see 2012’s Cosmopolis) and he makes the most of it. Playing a far less capable actor than himself, Pattinson presents for us, in his pivotal role, the perfect stooge and the perfect cad. Without a hint of irony, he says that he sees becoming a Scientologist as a good career move. He provides a fine example of how lost everyone is in this story while, at the same time, how aware everyone is of what they bargained for.