If you tried sticking your hand through Maps to the Stars’ glossy surface, it would disappear into a thick, black ooze. Billy Wilder showed us this with Sunset Boulevard back in the day; David Lynch did the same with both Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive; and now, David Cronenberg, master of horror both of body and mind, is giving it a go with his Machiavellian tribute to Hollywood, an elaborate circus of errors that’s not too far from the fake smiles and boardroom handshakes of the real thing.

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a near-waif of a woman wearing burn scars on her face, turns up in Hollywood to follow her dreams. There, she meets wannabe-actor limo-driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who poses the opportunity for her to develop a romantic connection in the big city – but her calling comes first, and that would be Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand, a big-time yet small-minded actor who happens to be looking to hire a PA. Meanwhile, a family kept in pocket by child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) are facing their own problems; visitations from ghosts in the night, and the whisper that an insane family member has returned to terrorise them.

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These different plots unpeel further and further, the stories bleeding into each other as they head toward the kind of ends we can only predict in the pit of the stomach. But the ride, no matter how harrowing or bluntly topical of Hollywood faux pas it can be, is an unalloyed laugh riot. What Cronenberg realises is that no matter what horrific, stupid or perplexing thing his troupe of film-biz elites do, it will always be underscored by humour; we watch them squirm in their charmed lives, and we laugh. On that note, entire scenes can unexpectedly turn on expectations (take John Cusack’s and Moore’s disarmingly odd first appearance together, for a brilliant example), while there are moments that’ll keep you up at night, desperately trying to come to a decision on whether you should have laughed or wept. Most of these are served up by Moore, who continues to prove herself as one of the film world’s greatest assets, bringing a damaged glamour to every role. In Havana, she’s the Julianne who didn’t make all the best choices, her smeared make-up masking the fact that in her middle age, she’s holding onto more regret than she is talent.

In realising there’s nothing new to say about behind-the-scenes excess, toxic overindulgence, and bottomless vapidity in the face of true art – especially in 2014, when those vices are accepted, not battled against – with Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg has done what he’s always done best; his movies, whatever their ostentatious gimmick, ultimately always revolve around a sharp streak of human sadness. It’s true in The Fly, where a relationship can be seen, literally (and gruesomely), falling apart; car collisions may be porno for the people in Crash, but it’s merely a vie for connection in the aftermath of tragedy.

In Maps, apart from all the XXX glitz and adolescent newspeak, its characters are suffering from a severe case of nostalgia. Havana wallows in the shadow of her dead mother, intent on taking over her role in a remake; Benjie and his family are trying to revert to some form of normalcy, but base their lives too much on past successes. For Agatha and Jerome, new in this blinding town, they’re nostalgic for a life they haven’t lived yet – in love with an idea. There are sickening and gruey and thoroughly nasty, Cronenbergy bits, for certain. But if Maps to the Stars’ characters are anything to go by, we all like to stick our hand in and get messy sometimes, too.