Dir. Bradley Cooper. Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott
We could talk about spoilers, but the concept for this movie is eighty years old, and let’s face it, we all know what happens.
The politics of A Star Is Born are what we might euphemistically call “old-fashioned.” They are the politics of whites in the spotlight (Cooper, Gaga), people of color on the sidelines cheering them on (Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos). They are the politics of rock ‘n roll as superior to pop. They are the politics of the frankly strange belief that an unvarnished appearance is somehow more authentic than a practiced one, and its equally fervent belief that authenticity is superior to performance. A Star Is Born, now in its fourth iteration under that title, has always been guilty of that belief that, as darkness follows light, so must a woman’s ascension be countered by a man’s collapse. This not a review about the politics of A Star Is Born, or a review that intends to let those politics inflect what I’m writing about. (Real talk: the politics of a film are as much a part of the movie as its frames, and cannot be excised from the movie no matter how much Robert Penn Warren you’ve read.) There’s been something of a push for more criticism that prizes aesthetics first, and because it’s just after Halloween and I feel like dressing up, I intend to show that one can watch this film from an apolitical perspective and still find it wanting.
Back in the late ’80s, a time when we made all sorts of bizarre choices as a people, Bruce Willis decided to hire some genuinely talented people and cut an album of R&B covers. Thirty years later, Bradley Cooper has decided to play fake rock star himself, but in his case there’s a movie to go with it. It’s hard not to watch the movie and think that this is more than a vanity project for Cooper, who has his name all over the thing: director, co-screenwriter, star. Jackson Maine hits the marks for “troubled soul.” No mother, a distant and bad father, a generally spotty upbringing, comes from nowhere, drinks and pops pills, alienates the people around him. He’s even going deaf because of his music career, which is a nice little touch. He is a big star, and I suppose that from the “more-is-more” perspective, the fact that he plays the guitar well (though we never do get much of Cooper’s actual performance there) is a sign that he has something going for him. The most important mark to hit for a “troubled soul,” though, is whether or not we should care about them, and there’s no particular reason to care about Jackson Maine. Pity me, the movie demands over and over again. Pity me, because I am talented? Because I am unmoored? Because I am an emotional child? Because I recognize talent when I see it? Because I have it in me to be nice to the plebes who recognize me, drive me, take my picture in grocery stores? Perhaps there’s some tragedy in the stuggle of feeling empty, but if there is, then heaven knows Cooper isn’t the one to bring out such a subtle personal trouble.
As a handsome jerk playing for laughs in the mode of Wedding Crashers or The Hangover, Cooper is still a joy, but as a performer in “serious” movies (especially in those mercifully forgettable pseudorealist work of David O. Russell, from whom he appears to have learned the fraudulent lesson that a slightly shaky camera makes it more like real life), he is never able to flatten us with feeling. In a key scene in this film, as he weeps in front of Ally (Gaga) for the many ways he has wronged her, we see the puppetmaster raise the strings on the wooden man. The camera tightens on him; he takes a deep breath; he puts his hand in front of his eyes; he makes sobbing noises; his eyes are entirely dry when he moves his hand from his face. Perhaps it’s meant to put him into Oscar contention, as a great many other choices in this movie seem to have been made for similar reasons. (Worst of all is the song that Ally sings after she appears on stage to say that she is “Ally Maine,” a line which has closed previous iterations of the film with its power, but is used here simply as gristle. It’s impossible to watch that performance and take it seriously; it’s absolutely part of the movie to give it another shot at Best Original Song, and it certainly doesn’t do anything, not even with that sacrilegiously bad montage, to make you miss Jack.) I don’t know which sin is more preferable—believing that you’re making something beautiful and true, or trying to hammer that crooked emotional nail home for the people who can give you a gold statuette.
There are similar scenes throughout the movie, culminating with the scene where Jack is about to commit suicide; he stares at nothing in the general direction of the camera and then, with a great sense of Symbolism, closes the garage door. The one that comes closest to equaling this one for sheer triteness is the one where Jack tells his older brother, Bobby (Elliott) that he’s been idolizing him all those years and not their father. First of all, we all know already, second of all Cooper uses the exact same expressions to make this sad moment as he used to do the previous sad moment, and third of all this moment is actually hilarious. My first thought on hearing Cooper’s voice in the film was that he sounded like he was doing a Sam Elliott impression: then Sam Elliott showed up! Then they acknowledged that Bradley Cooper was doing a Sam Elliott impression! Cooper is a gifted impressionist, and yet this is still so ludicrous that I couldn’t help but giggle whenever the two of them appeared on screen together.
The incessant focus on Cooper’s Jack means that Gaga’s Ally is elided, and this is perhaps the greatest failure of the film. The best Star Is Born remains the 1954 version with Judy Garland, and Garland really is the main character there. Even if the back half is a little overfilled with sadness about Norman’s decline, Cukor gives Garland the space to electrify us with some of the best musical numbers ever committed to film. “Born in a Trunk” just gets rid of James Mason for a long time and allows us to appreciate the person we all came to see, who also happens to be the person everyone in the world of the movie comes to see, too. Cooper can’t take himself away from the spotlight that long, and so Gaga’s performance matters less. Jackson Maine tends to do, just as Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay) and Rez (Rafi Gavron) do and Ally reacts. She spends so much time doing things that other people want her to do, or changing herself for other people, that there’s no sense of a real person there. The scene where Jack criticizes her for selling out and calls her ugly (the thing that sets her off, because cosi fan tutte) ends with her yelling at him, and it’s so completely out of left field that it loses all purpose. The best elements of Lady Gaga the stage icon are her powerhouse vocals and her remarkable physical presence. Both of these are cut down significantly, and what remains is an adequate but mousy performance. Gaga deserves so much better than what she gets in this movie; the movie makes it seem like no one really trusted her to carry a scene on her own, or even to say her lines with conviction.
Equally damaging to A Star Is Born is its screenplay, which is terrified you won’t understand what’s going on. When Ally is taken on by Rez, who manages her career and intends to make her a conventional pop star, he works to make her image as plastic as any other’s. She dyes her hair the worst color. She gets a couple backup dancers. She does a photoshoot. Her lyrics are vapid and repetitive. The argument the film makes is that Ally would have done better doing, essentially, exactly what Jack wants her to do with her music career, and it makes this argument so completely that it gives the viewer no room for dissent. Ally’s songs with Jack are better by default because they aren’t the same five words repeated over and over again, but in so doing the movie strangles itself. Once again, A Star Is Born thinks it is self-evident that we ought to side with Jack, an empirically useless human being who happens to be played by our half-pint auteur, over the decisions that Ally is making with a veteran producer. What this Star Is Born fails to understand is that Ally’s rise to fame should make sense because of her meteoric talent, not in spite of it. In the ’54 version, Vicki goes through the roof because she is a sensational singer and Norman goes to pot because he is self-destructive. It’s far more powerful than a version where Ally goes through the roof because she becomes a #brand and Jack implodes because he can’t abide her transformation into a person he no longer controls.
The dog is cute, though. The dog gets five stars.