A (burn-scarred) girl (Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of meeting celebrities. A fading actress (Moore) strives to land the role her mother (who died in a fire) made famous in yet another remake. A child franchise superstar (Evan Bird) begins an inevitable sequel. These strands, and more, will connect to reveal the vile truth beneath the veneer of the movies.
On the surface, or in this case epidermis, David Cronenberg’s latest experiment in cinematic shape is a coal-black Hollywood satire full of digs at the biz-fixated drones of la-la land. In truth, written by novelist Bruce Wagner, it is an autopsy (or a cartography) of Hollywood’s venal ways of life so hypnotically horrible it is virtually a satire of Hollywood satires, sneering at such lightweights as Sunset Boulevard and The Player. The menu of West Coast human dilapidation runs a gamut from med addiction, self-help baloney and poisonous family legacies to psychosis, visitations from the undead and human immolation. There are even darker, weirder, viler things afoot, but let’s not spoil the surprise.
Nevertheless, while being the Canuck slauteur’s most cynical slice of sangfroid since Videodrome, it is also his funniest. It’s not self-aware and playful like Scream; the pace, feel and sleek look are unmistakably Cronenberg’s scientific method. Yet he mixes it up with lively Lynchian weirdness and discernable jokes. Even the names have a nutty, over-nuanced, time-out-of-joint pitch.
As Agatha Weiss, Mia Wasikowska enlivens her batty-teen formula with a vampiric hunger, landing the job of “chore whore” to Moore’s unstable fading star Havana Segrand mainly because of Segrand’s lurid fascination with her scars. The fearless Moore, cringingly human and tragic in her tantrums and obnoxious self-promotion, her face a Botox-rictus of desperation, stands out much because the other performances remain calibrated to the classic Cronenbergian semi-tranquilised school of performance.
Segrand has serious mummy issues. In fact, her legendary mother (Sarah Gadon), killed in a house fire while still young and beautiful, has a habit of dropping by to catch up. Not before the story’s box of worms squirms over to John Cusack’s Dr. Stafford Weiss (hmm, surnames?), Segrand’s screwed-up karmic guide, whose Bieber-esque son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a doped-out star of a tween franchise called Bad Babysitter.
Proving Cronenberg is not above self-mockery, current muse Robert Pattinson turns up as genial limo driver Jerome Fontana (a wannabe actor-screenwriter, natch), having previously featured as the wealth-anaesthetised limo passenger in the excellent Cosmopolis. The net effect of all this drug-glazed self-absorption, obsidian-dark comedy and good old family degradation is a form of plush horror movie. You could consider the film a ghost story; in a passing gag the script even sniffs at its own resemblance to The Sixth Sense, but allows the dead to bear uncanny warnings. An old-school David Cronenberg joint keeps seeping to the surface. Amid the flawless mansions, poolside clubs and studio conference rooms we are confronted by the fleshy and gross: Moore conducting a meeting from the toilet while delivering ripe gusts of flatulence; a passing actor reporting how he sells his excrement online; beautiful faces reduced to bloody pulps before the credits roll...
What, you might ask, are we to make of it all? Is this a sinister parable of the extremes of Hollywood’s self-infatuation? Well, yes. A savage indictment of the curses of family? Certainly. A scathing attack on therapy and its evil twin, addiction? Affirmative. Another bleak survey of human shortcoming? Indeed it is, and no amount of wealth and privilege can stop the rot. What might surprise you is just how entertaining Cronenberg’s repulsive diagnosis turns out to be.
The Canadian horror maestro scrapes away the surface of Hollywood to discover a magnificently Cronenbergian outbreak of tortured families, reprehensible behaviour and extreme violence.