If there's one thing that can accurately be said about the films of David Cronenberg, it's that they're...well, they're not for everyone. His latest fits nicely into a long filmography that's often times absorbed by tales of monsters, either spiritual or literal (sometimes both), and kinky sexuality exposing the inner layers of dark and twisted characters. He can be cold and removed, and I've often found that with his movies, you fall into a love it or hate it camp. You either get him or you don't, which makes any Cronenberg film difficult to recommend to just anyone.
I do get him though- I've always considered myself a fan and found his films wildly entertaining; the dark, disturbing nature of them to be exciting and most of all, different from anything that any other filmmaker can dream up. To me, his intriguingly twisted sensibilities are so singular as to render him a truly unique visionary, who remains more accessible than the abstract tendencies of his contemporaries like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch. He always tells a surface story, albeit a weird one and you either respond to it or you don't. Here he directs a screenplay by veteran screenwriter Bruce Wagner that combines vicious Hollywood satire with high camp and the dark melodrama of one entrenched celebrity family harboring secrets that enable them to fit right at home in their surroundings, and the soulless denizens that live and work in Tinseltown.
This is a version of the mythmaking factory that really burns it to the ground (literally, as you'll see in the story) and falls more in line with Robert Altman's The Player in terms of just how cynical, corrupt and amoral the depiction of glamor is in this film. Wagner and Cronenberg seem to want to actively debunk those myths, using some of the actors for scenes of grotesque exploitation that serve up their images as less glamorous than you would ever want to see (kudos to Julianne Moore for her willingness to be filmed moaning on a toilet seat while whining about laxatives). Mia Wasikowska is the entry point to this world, as Agatha Weiss, a teenage burn victim who uses her recently claimed Twitter "friendship" with Carrie Fisher to her advantage, landing herself a job as a personal assistant to aging movie star Havana Segrand (Moore), in order to ingratiate herself in the industry. She then waffles between following Segrand around, romancing chauffeur and wannabe actor Robert Pattinson, and eventually meeting up with her long estranged family members, who are the ones sheltering the tragic backstory revealed later in the film.
But before we get to all that, we follow another person ensconced in the Hollywood bubble, Benjie Weiss, former Bieber-esque child star and Agatha's little brother, who's already been in and out of rehab at age thirteen and lords over his costars and parents as the entitled little shit he is (newcomer Evan Bird gets some of the most hilarious lines, as Benjie casually puts down everyone he meets with one concocted insult after another). His parents are played by Olivia Williams as the smothering stage mom and John Cusack as a new age therapist to the stars, who also retains Segrand as one of his clients. All the performances are pitch perfect, with the actors ready to deliver the dark humor and surreal one liners of Wagner's dialogue, peppered with topical references and inside jokes, but Julianne Moore is the one who really stands apart form the ensemble as the shallow and aging former starlet. Showing off how Hollywood casts away its actresses once they hit a certain age and no longer have use for them, Moore conveys the desperation and ugly side of post-stardom, a woman who's haunted by her own mother's film career and tragic past, while giving a physically brave and gutsy performance as she seems game for more anything that's asked of her, from the aforementioned toilet scene to a hollow threeway with two younger partners, and the hesitant joy she feels when the death of a child forces another actor to drop out of a movie, thus gifting her the part instead. It's a despicable character in a lot of ways, but Moore so inhabits her, and is so funny and edgy while doing it that you just kind of sit back in awe while gawking at her grotesque and pitiful Norma Desmond- style antics.
Even though the movie is never less than entertaining and even shocking in its pointed commentary about celebrity and pop culture, not all of the material works completely, as once the Weiss family melodrama starts to take over the movie in the last third, the focus seems to shift in ways that aren't nearly as compelling as earlier in the film. The mix of genres is a bit uneven in the climax, and you might leave the movie wondering what it was even about after the ending. There are ghostly, almost supernatural moments that render the film closer to something like Black Swan (or perhaps Lynch's Mulholland Dr.) than Sunset Boulevard, which is a bit jarring as well, but still in a uniquely watchable way. You really couldn't expect Cronenberg's take on Hollywood myths to be anything less, right? Not a perfect movie, but inherently interesting and consistently provocative- a can't miss for fans of the director, who refuses to sell out, well into his later years, making him one of the lone, stalwart visionaries in a town he so clearly reviles.
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