"Maps to the Stars" is such a deliriously perfect title for a Hollywood send-up that it's amazing it hasn't been used in that form before. The tritest of all exercises in voyeuristic celebrity worship, that flimsy fold-up guide to the homes of actors and actresses represents the ultimate divide between the "haves" and "have-nots."
But David Cronenberg's film is not really about outsiders. Everyone in this portrait of the industry — whether it's a fading star (Julianne Moore) with a Hollywood pedigree, a teenage box-office juggernaut (Evan Bird), or a limo driver with dreams (Robert Pattinson) — is an insider in some way. Even the mysterious girl Agatha with the leather gloves and burn marks on her face fresh off the bus (Mia Wasikowska) quickly snags a job as a personal assistant to Moore's Havana Segrand. Her Twitter friend, Carrie Fisher (as herself), gets her the gig.
"Maps to the Stars" is a strange and intoxicating mix of satire, ghost story and family melodrama, with a plot and ultimate point that remains hazy throughout despite an ardently linear structure.
At the start, Cronenberg flits from character to character as viewers try to glean how they all fit together.
The striving Weiss family is ultimately the nucleus of the film. The father, Stafford (John Cusack), is a TV famous self-help therapist to the stars, including Havana, while the mother Christina (Olivia Williams) manages their superstar offspring Benji (Evan Bird), fresh out of rehab at only 13.
Benji is introduced in a wonderful scene in a hospital where he's visiting a young, ailing fan, offering her an iPad as a gift and shooting evil glances at his right-hand man when he finds out that the girl has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, not AIDS. He's a megalomaniac Justin Bieber-type with just enough humanity to make him interesting.
The girl in the hospital dies early on, though, and literally haunts Benji for the duration. Havana, too, is visited by the ghost of her mother Clarice (Sarah Gadon), a beloved and beautiful actress who died in a fire at a young age.
Agatha's arrival propels everything into motion. A strange character in a stranger land, she tells the limo driver she's from Jupiter, and we believe her. Wasikowska plays Agatha with such ethereal conviction that it's almost disappointing when she clarifies that she means Jupiter, Florida. She's the fourth member of the Weiss family, fresh out of a psych ward and looking to make amends with her estranged family.
This disturbed woman becomes our most trustworthy guide to the "stars," exposing the dark side of Havana's desperation and the deep secrets festering in her family as we coast along in this hermetically sealed land of sun-soaked palm trees and luxurious, impersonal interiors.
The Canadian Cronenberg shot in Los Angeles for the first time in his career (for only five days), using familiar sites like the Chateau Marmont and the Hollywood sign to flesh out screenwriter Bruce Wagner's world. Wagner started working on the story in the '90s when he was an aspiring writer and driving a limo.
For as biting and visceral as many Hollywood satires are, it's amazing how stale they can often seem at the same time. Every cruel observation about the industry and its population of malcontents and deviants has already been said in one form or another.
Superficially, "Maps to the Stars" is just the newest flavor on the block, yet Moore and Wasikowska's sublime, otherworldly performances power the film. Moore, specifically, coming off her Oscar-winning turn as the Alzheimer's afflicted intellectual in "Still Alice," comes alive as the morally bankrupt star and alone makes the film worth seeing.
But there is nothing as engrossing here as in David Lynch's surrealist "Mulholland Dr." or Billy Wilder's L.A. noir "Sunset Boulevard." Cusack is also particularly miscast as the Weiss family patriarch and celebrity therapist, deflating scenes where he should energize in the vein of Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey in "Magnolia."
Ultimately, "Maps" may not lead anywhere satisfying, but it is a fascinating, worthy mess of a ride.
"Maps to the Stars," a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material." Running time: 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ldbahr .