'Maps to the Stars'

For a film that blends magical realism with the tone and characters of FX's little-remembered drama Dirt, Maps to the Stars somehow manages to fit snugly in to director David Cronenberg's filmography.

Cronenberg is virtually impossible to put in a box. His roots -- in the form of Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly -- lie in horror, and there is a tinge of chill in almost everything of his that I have seen. But for people like me -- cinephiles who were three years old when The Fly came out -- the Cronenberg we grew up on was more underworld. Here's to you Eastern Promises and A History of Violence.

It's only with a C.V. like that that Maps to the Stars, a deliberately schlocky satire of Hollywood, a town Cronenberg has operated within for decades, makes sense. The film brings together an ensemble cast including Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams and newcomer Evan Bird. Other than Pattinson, each is carrying a deep, dark secret and/or damaged goods.

Each also fits a familiar Hollywood archetype. Moore is the past-her-prime starlet Havana Segrand clinging to her career in a business that prizes youth, and heavily medicating when things don't go her way. Cusack is Dr. Stafford Weiss, Segrand's therapist and a self-helping snake oil salesman who spouts Dalai Lama-inspired platitudes and would seem to have made a few Faustian bargains along the way to fame. He's the Hollywood patriarch you think of when you wonder who raised someone like Lindsay Lohan. His wife Christina (Williams) is paranoid about securing the paltry empire they have amassed, and his son Benjie (Bird) is, uh, basically Justin Bieber (a spoiled little bastard of a child star).

It is Wasikowska’s Agatha, chauffeured about town sporadically by limo driver Jermoe Fontana (Pattinson), who mixes things up with this sad crew. She arrives on a bus from Florida, robed in a hoodie from one of Benjie’s movies and possessing cryptic but intimate knowledge of the Weiss family. Severe burns have disfigured her, but the multiple tales she tells about how she got them coupled with her moth-to-flame attraction to fame and her dubious boasts of friendship with Carrie Fisher combine to cast everything she says in doubt.

Agatha manages to score a job as Havana’s assistant, and in so doing spirals closer and closer to the Weiss family. She is a deeply troubled individual — ghostly visions and an oft-recited poem central to her story — but perhaps the point is that she is far from the only disturbed person in her orbit. The Weisses and her employer are every bit as damaged and surrounded by ghoulishness as she is.

This is odd subject matter, both in general and for Cronenberg specifically. It is humorous at some moments and unsettling at many, many others. I can’t say I have much of an idea what he was trying to say, other than some fairly obvious, fairly trite things about fame — who seeks it out and the ways in which it can twist your perspective.

I can say that, bolstered by particularly strong performances from Moore and Wasikowska, Maps to the Stars was thoroughly engrossing.