The prevailing theory about why “Birdman” won best picture at the Oscars a couple of weeks ago is the Academy loves movies about the business of show.
So, “Birdman” wins out over “Boyhood” et al., and “Shakespeare in Love” bests “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, and “Chicago” is deemed best picture over “Gangs of New York” and “LOTR: The Two Towers” in 2002.
Even the admittedly wonderful “The Artist” (2011) and hugely entertaining “Argo” (2012) were about as frothy as it gets when it comes to awards season.
Think about it: three of the last four best picture winners have been largely about the movie business.
But Hollywood clearly has a love-hate relationship with itself, as evidenced by David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” the latest in a long, long line of films about movies featuring insecure, self-absorbed, narcissists obsessed with career and virtually incapable of decency.
“Maps” is one of the most scathing indictments of the entertainment industry ever put on film, but it lacks the depth and insight of films such “Sunset Blvd.,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “The Player.” It’s well-made and well-acted, but it’s also a grotesque, self-indulgent and ultimately tiresome satire that leaves behind an unpleasant stench.
Sounds like a great time at the movies, eh?
Julianne Moore throws herself into the role of Havana, an actress of a certain age who enjoyed great stardom but now feels as if it’s all slipping away. Havana is obsessed with landing the lead in a remake of a film that made her late mother a star some 30 years ago. Havana also claims her mother abused her — a charge disputed by mom herself (Clarice Taggart), who appears as a ghostly vision to Havana.
Whether Havana is arguing with her dead mom, engaging in a painfully transparent conversation with a rival actress, undergoing a therapy session or participating in a threesome, she’s so brittle, so clearly on the verge of a complete breakdown, so EXHAUSTING, you want to leave the room — except you’re in a movie theater.
John Cusack does fine work as the aforementioned therapist — a psychologist/TV personality who specializes in celebrity clients and dotes on his son Benjie, a child star who at 13 has already done a stint in rehab and is pitching a fit because the little kid in his latest movie is stealing scenes left and right. Young Evan Bird is frighteningly good playing this Bieber-esque brat, who casually mistreats everyone around him and fully expects adults four times his age to grovel at the feet of his greatness.
Working from a script by Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg lays it on thick with themes of burnt flesh, raging fires and incest. There are some moments of dark humor, but mostly it’s just sour.
Mia Wasikowska is Agatha, who appears to be a delusional, star-struck tourist when she arrives in town but is harboring a pitch-black past and is more connected than she’d have you believe. Robert Pattinson is a chauffeur who really wants to be an actor and a writer. Olivia Williams is Benjie’s mother, whose only reason for being is the son who couldn’t care less when he hears her weeping in the next room.
Everybody gets a chance to chew up the scenery. They’re playing characters ranging from pathetic to pathological to desperate to deeply disturbed to out of their ever-lovin’ minds. There’s not an ounce of sincerity in any of these people, and they seem to spend about 99 percent of their time making deals, scheming, manipulating and lying, and 1 percent actually focusing on doing great work.
We all know the entertainment business is a contact sport, populated by more than a few ambitious, morally bankrupt individuals who will stop at nothing to reach the top of the mountain and stay there. But in “Maps to the Stars,” it’s hard to find a redeeming quality in ANY of these characters. Even the mobsters in “Goodfellas” had their positive qualities. This isn’t a lousy film; it’s a mediocre, ugly film about lousy people.
Focus World presents a film directed by David Cronenberg and written by Bruce Wagner. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and available on demand.