Monday, February 23, 2015

Another look at Sleazywood: David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner's louche MAPS TO THE STARS

Does anyone have a more jaundiced, delightfully despicable view of Hollywood and its dank denizens than writer Bruce Wagner (shown below)? From his comic Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills to the masterful I'm Losing You (novel and film) to this latest lollapalooza -- MAPS TO THE STARS -- Wagner shows us la-la-land with an incredible blend of black humor and rapier wit tempered with just a dash of feeling so that we can't quite dismiss his nasty satire out of hand. To bring to fruition his latest foray into our narcissistic depths, he's landed David Cronenbergshown above (or maybe to the right), to direct, and the combo turns out to be a marriage made in an absolutely heavenly hell.

Maps to the Stars begins rather quietly, if bizarrely, for we haven't yet understood the depths to which the characters we're meeting will soon sink -- how their insatiable need for constant acknowledgment and fame outdoes any human instinct they might have once possessed. Yet so interesting and strange seem all the people we encounter that we're hooked from scene one.

Mr Wagner's dialog definitely helps. Notes one character early on: "I met the Dalai Lama! He's the kind of guy you just want to hang with. But you can't. Because he's, like, you know, the Dalai Lama."

It isn't long, however, before the characters we're laughing at and with turn darker, nastier. Darkest of all and the woman we probably get to know best is the famous actress named Havana Segrand (played by last night's Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, shown above and below, right).

Also proving a strange character we learn to care about (and become a bit frightened of, as well) is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska, above, left and below). Agatha, who now possess an unsightly scarred body and face, is the daughter of a famous self-help guru, Standford Weiss, who serves the Hollywood set and is played with his usual panache by John Cusack (shown in the penultimate photo), who seems to be taking to darker roles like that proverbial duck to water.

Into Agatha's life also comes a handsome chauffeur-cum-screenwriter, played well by Robert Pattinson, below, who has by now thankfully gotten that stupid-but-successful Twilight series out of his system and can move on to roles that call for some actual acting. He's the character through whom we see much of what is happening (and is said to be based upon Wagner's own early Hollywood history).

The Weiss family also includes a mother, played with rigid intensity by the fine Olivia Williams, and a drug-addled TV-actor son, Benji, whose name and interaction with a dog should bring to mind a certain (in)famous series of animal movies. As played by the terrific and creepy Evan Bird, below, Benji complete this family of would-be Hollywood royalty, a matched set of major nut-jobs.

That Weiss family dances with and around our gal Havana, who pretty much rules the movie in the same manner as she does her retinue. There is a particular scene -- between Ms Moore and another actress playing an actress (Jennifer Gibson) on a Beverly Hills sidewalk outside one or another swank shop -- so perfectly on the mark and full of friendly sweetness masking outright hatred that it becomes an instant classic. The interaction demonstrates to a "t" how Hollywood folk are never scarier than when they're being "nice."

Ms Moore -- always a great actress who rarely makes a misstep or chooses a project that is not worthwhile -- is so very fine in this rich, rabid role that she actually makes what happens to her character somehow enjoyable. And that is indeed what they call "going some."

Well, that's Mr. Wagner for you. He turns us all into the kind of people who can take schadenfreude to unspeakable new heights. Or, rather, depths. "Juicy" does not begin to describe this amazing film.

Maps to the Stars -- from Focus Features and running 111 minutes -- opens theatrically this Friday, February 27, in various locales.

Here in the NYC area, it'll play at Manhattan's IFC Center, the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn and the Kew Gardens Cinema in Queens. In the L.A. area, look for it at the Sundance Sunset Cinema, and at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and their NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. Elsewhere? Maybe, and if I can find a link to playdates, I'll post it later....

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