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'Maps to the Stars' (R)

“I need a new chore whore!” announces Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress whose previous personal assistant ran off with some money and her stash of Vicodin. Havana is respected in Hollywood but has reached that age at which casting directors are no longer interested in her (“she’s menopausal,” as another character puts it). She’s worried about her career, desperate to be cast in a remake of a movie that made her late mother famous, and she needs a new assistant to help her with menial tasks while she lobbies for the part.

Fortunately, a young woman from Florida named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just moved to Los Angeles in search of work, and thanks to a fleeting Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher, she lands an interview for the job with Havana. Agatha is polite, quiet and a hard worker. There’s something vaguely wrong about about her, too: When people ask her where she’s from, she replies “Jupiter … Florida.” She’s also scarred from a fire — she wears black leather gloves that go up to her elbows and uses her hair to hide the burn marks on the right side of her face — and although she doesn’t like to talk about the incident, everything else about her seems perfect, so Havana gives her the gig.

The first half of Maps to the Stars, which was directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) from a long-gestating script by novelist Bruce Wagner (I’m Losing You), is a scathing, darkly comical satire of the vanities and inanities of the film industry. Those who are on the inside, like the neurotic Havana, always want more (“This role was meant for Best Supporting!” she squeals to her agent about a potential part). Those who are on the outside, like a limo driver (an excellent Robert Pattinson), who is also an aspiring actor and screenwriter, is hoping to land a bit part in anything as a way of making connections.

And then there are outright monsters like Benjie (Evan Bird), a 13-year-old superstar child actor fresh out of rehab who radiates Bieberesque petulance, entitlement and arrogance. He’s the complete opposite of his gentle, caring teen idol persona. Benji berates his agent and treats his parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams) like waiters, but they suck it up, because they know their son, no matter how unpleasant, is their golden ticket.

Like Robert Altman’s The Player, Maps to the Stars names names (“This is Garry Marshall, not Bertolucci!” Havana whines. “His movies don’t make money anymore!”) but the film isn’t an inside joke. Cronenberg, who had never shot a film in the U.S. until now, is on the viewer’s side: The picture isn’t so much about Hollywood as it is about the effect it has on people who live there, the omnipresent industry and shoptalk sending moral compasses askew, making debauchery commonplace and sometimes leading to madness.

Maps to the Stars is haunted by ghosts, the way the film industry is haunted by its past, and Cronenberg gradually tapers down the dark humor and starts to amp up the ugliness of these blank, superficial lives. Brave is a word too often slung around to describe actors who dare to appear in front of the camera not looking their best. But Moore’s turn as Havana is a truly daring act by an esteemed actress (and recent Oscar winner) who doesn’t need to be taking such chances at this point in her career. Moore embraces the selfish, me-above-all-else attitude of her character, singing and dancing when a tragedy involving a young child opens up a potential role for her, or sitting on the toilet farting loudly while giving Agatha a list of errands to run, then complaining about the stink (try to imagine even the great Meryl Streep doing that; you can’t).

Cronenberg’s elegant framing and camerawork are reminiscent of a photographer shooting wild fauna — he’s fascinated and amused by this strange land — but his fondness for horror and disturbing imagery eventually seep into the picture, sending Maps to the Stars into some disconcerting, even grotesque areas. The film takes its characters seriously, imbuing them with repellent but recognizably human emotions far more complex than, say, Bret Easton Ellis’ zonked-out automatons living in a soulless, barren Los Angeles.

As funny as the early portions of the film are, you won’t be laughing by the time the end credits arrive. Maps to the Stars depicts celebrity and stardom as an addictive disease – once you taste it, you crave more, no matter how badly it rots the soul – and turns Hollywood into a city worthy of quarantine. After seeing the film, not only would you never want to live there, but it doesn’t even seem like a nice place to visit.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams.

Director: David Cronenberg.

Screenwriter: Bruce Wagner.

A Focus World release. Running time: 111 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.