Julianne Moore sits on the toilet, expelling violently, with verbal accouterments accompanying each movement. She’s a washed-up B-lister in Maps to the Stars, a Hollywood satire perverse enough to earn midnight movie status (it opens this weekend at the Coolidge, at the witching hour). She’s skewered alongside the rest of the ensemble: a limo driver (Robert Pattinson), an assistant (Mia Wasikowska), a new-age massage therapist (John Cusack), and a fresh-from-rehab Justin Bieber analog (Evan Bird), all of whom would happily slash one another’s throats for a role in the next major franchise movie. When Moore exits that bathroom, she turns to Wasikowska and exclaims disbelief at the odor. There’s the whole movie, at first glance. This is the shit Hollywood leaves behind—doesn’t it smell bad?
Maps is directed by David Cronenberg, who’s so distinctive that his name has become an adjective. In the most superficial sense, to be Cronenbergian is to be a genre film that mines horror or tension from alterations of the body. (For examples, see his early films—primarily Videodrome and The Fly.) Just last month, the director of the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot promised his take on the material would be “Cronenbergian.” Even the superhero-movie-industrial complex steals from him.
If terrifying protrusions were all that Cronenberg’s art amounted to though, we wouldn’t have canonized him. He digs through the viscera, to the ideas resting below the imagery of his “body horror” movies. His latest films concerned people transformed mentally—by capital (Cosmopolis), by psychoanalysis (A Dangerous Method), and by crime (Eastern Promises).
The disease spreading through Maps isn’t Hollywood solipsism—that’d be too simple. But on the page, this is an oh-no-they-didn’t shock comedy: Moore’s actress thinks about converting to Scientology “as a career move.” Bird’s Bieber clone vapidly talks to Make-A-Wish kids about free swag. Most characters are eventually revealed to be part of one sprawling incestuous clan—a dig at Hollywood nepotism that’s so blatant it can hardly be called subtext. They’re our TMZ superstars, and they’re the logical end result of a culture that values the off-screen antics of famous artists more than it does the art itself.
But Cronenberg doesn’t let us laugh. He keeps actors separated, rarely letting them stand next to each other within a frame, giving the dialogue an intentionally stilted quality. Even when Cusack is massaging Moore, he composes images so that we barely see the two of them joined together. Most comedies let their actors play off one another, but Cronenberg goes out of his way to do the opposite. Scenes that are ostensibly funny become absurdly disconcerting instead. Everyone’s isolation becomes the focus, rather than the tabloid-worthy drug scandals and the trades-worthy casting rumors. With their visions blinded by ego, there’s no redemption through love or art to be found. And so an industry satire becomes a surreal tragedy about the physical effects of mental disfigurement. It becomes a David Cronenberg film.
MAPS TO THE STARS AT THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. FRI 2/27, SAT 2/28. Special event screening on 2/28/ at 2pm, with director Q&A session (via Skype) following screening. For showtimes and tickets visit coolidge.org