MAPS TO THE STARS (R21)
112 minutes/opens tomorrow/****
The story: Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), skin marked by burn scars, shows up in Hollywood to pursue her dream of a show business career. Bitter, forgotten actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) yearns for the lead role in a remake of a classic movie that starred her mother. Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a celebrity therapist and father to Benjie (Evan Bird), a former child star just emerged from drug rehabilitation and looking to reboot his career.
We love it when Hollywood insiders rip into one another, whether in the tabloids or in satirical fiction. It feeds our desire to see these demigods get taken down a notch. It also feels fair - surely, some emotional damage must have been traded for strong jawlines and universal adoration.
Screenwriter Bruce Wagner (Wild Palms, 1993) addresses that need with the proper amount of acid gusto, but as the film goes on, the mood becomes unexpectedly weirder and nastier.
A drug-abusing former kid actor, pushy stage mum, neurotic actress and television celebrity Stafford (Cusack), a New Age therapist and motivational speaker rolled into one - not an unusual cast of characters, for, say, a Hollywood-centred black comedy in the style of The Player (1992) or more recent television works such as Entourage or Californication.
But just as the viewer is settling in for what feels like two fun hours of name-dropping, in-jokes and medal-winning levels of hypocrisy, enter Agatha (Wasikowska), a girl who combines a firm sense of purpose with unnatural calmness.
She appears to be the person the audience will most identify with and the character through whose innocent eyes the audience comes to see the world.
Wasikowska and Moore are the highlights here, as the "ingenue" of sorts and fading actress, respectively.
Wasikowska deploys her disquieting stare, the one that hints at turmoil within; Moore shades the pathos of her performance with the perfect amount of maudlin humour.
Director David Cronenberg - now 71 and enjoying later-life acclaim as crafter of gripping dramas (A History Of Violence, 2005; Eastern Promises, 2007; A Dangerous Method, 2011) - has no love lost for Tinseltown as he has mentioned in interviews, but he allows the punches to connect with lightness and grace.
But when the tone shifts to operatic horror in the second half, Cronenberg shows a firm, almost detached hand, never letting its more lurid elements get away from him.
Most of all, he gives the floor to the team of Wasikowska and Moore and they deliver.