The sight, early on in Maps to the Stars, of Robert Pattinson cruising in a limousine, may cause David Cronenberg watchers some anxiety. Are we in for a repeat of the flat perorations that characterised the director's Cosmopolis? Not so much. There is verve, spew, anger and perversity on display in the director's neo-Jacobean Hollywood tragedy. It's not quite a return to the form of Eastern Promises. But there's clearly still juice in the old devil's veins.
Mind you, the film, derived from a script by Bruce Wagner, long an analyst of Hollywood's fetid underbelly, does not break much new ground. We know that the denizens of the film industry are drug-addled, therapy-obsessed vultures with tunnel vision. Few of us know this because we may have met any of these people; we know it because we've seen the Dream Factory satirised in Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Get Shorty, The Big Picture and other manifestations of Hollywood's obsession with itself.
Like the title character of All About Eve, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Los Angeles wearing the look of a naive rube. Her first move is to hire Pattinson's limo (he's in the front seat this time) and take a drive up to the big houses on the hill. Before too long, again like Eve, she has secured a job as "core whore" to a fading star. A disconcertingly blond Julianne Moore plays this Havana Segrand as a monster of self- absorption. Working hard to secure the lead in a remake of a film that starred her abusive mother, she is so crazily driven that she will – almost literally, as it transpires – dance across the bodies of dead children to achieve her aim.
Mind you, virtually everybody in the film shares that unhinged compulsion. We meet a juvenile star (Evan Bird) who loathes the younger competition. His dad (John Cusack) is a junk therapist with a book to flog. When everybody is a venal egotist, venal egotism loses some of its potent repulsion.
Still, the increasingly macabre reversals of Wagner’s plot – as in Jacobean drama, ghosts play a role – are sufficiently convoluted to keep the film alive, and Cronenberg’s characteristically clinical staging remains unsettling throughout. All the actors fling themselves into their horrible roles with cheering gusto. The dialogue is loaded with scabrous lines.
For all that, the impression remains that too many wide barn doors are being shot at with too many large-gauge shotguns. We get it, you hate yourselves. Now move on.