A Star is Born and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Let’s see… a remake of a classic film, the directorial debut of a respected actor, and it’s about the entertainment industry. Are we sure they can’t squeeze in World War II to make this finely engineered Oscar Bait in all of existence? Now Oscar Season has always been a bit of nebulous term as there are a lot of films throughout the year that manage to maintain prestige buzz all the way to voting time (*cough* Get Out *cough*), but there’s no denying that this time of year is chock full of films hoping to be contenders; especially this one!
The movie follows Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who is an aging country rock star (think Bruce Springsteen or Florida Georgia Line) that likes to drink hard, take pills, and try to pretend he isn’t developing a severe case of Tinnitus. After one of his shows and three fourths of a bottle of whisky, he randomly stumbles into a bar and sees Ally (Lady Gaga) performing one of her sets. Now it could just be the booze talking or she could be THE GREATEST SINGER OF ALL TIME, but either way he has to meet her and try to get her to date him. Oh, and ALSO he’ll help her get a career, but he’ll cross that bridge when they get to it; which is after the dating bridge. ANYWAY, they spend some time together, party hard at a few bars, and eventually he takes her on tour with him (which is managed by Jackson’s brother played by Sam Elliott) to sing her songs among other things. Eventually she catches the eye of a manager (Rafi Gavron) and suddenly her success isn’t dependent on Jackson which I guess just gives him more time to drink heavily even if it’s obviously a problem for everyone around him, including her. Will Ally live out her dreams and become the next great pop sensation? How long can Jackson function like this without destroying everything and everyone around him? How the heck are they successful in TODAY’S music climate!? There’s not a single sick drop in any of their songs!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this movie since I’ve never seen the original films and the end product didn’t really connect with me the way that it seems to have with everyone else, but I still feel like I should be a bit generous towards it. Perhaps I’ve run out of contrarian zeal or maybe the genuine highlights of the movie are great enough to keep me from really disliking it. It does have a pretty phenomenal cast and while the direction isn’t SPECTACULAR it certainly does what it needs to, which is more than a lot of other movies can manage. We’re only in October and there are hopefully gonna be much better movies in the next few months, but for now? Eh, I’ve seen worse Oscar Bait (*cough* Three Billboards *cough*).
I’m gonna spend a lot of this review complaining about things that didn’t work for me, so let’s try and balance things out right up front by explaining the better aspects of this movie before diving headlong into my issues with it. The key to this movie working AT ALL is the star making performance by Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) who soaks up the spotlight whenever she’s on screen. I know she’s had acting roles before like in American Horror Story and apparently that Sin City movie no one cared about, but this is my first time seeing her play someone other than herself and she’s truly a natural in the part. Okay, maybe it’s not THAT much of a stretch for her to play a talented musician clawing her way into the spotlight, but she sells it well and the fact that she’s a famous pop star never becomes a distraction. Everyone else does great in this too even if she outshines them all. I’ll get to my issues with Bradley Cooper soon enough, but his character is well realized for what it is and there are a few genuinely emotional and vulnerable moments that sell the sheer depths that his character has to go to in order to understand himself and the problems he has to deal with. Sam Elliott shows up for like fifteen minutes of the movie to be Sam Elliott, which is why you hire the guy in the first place, and they even managed to rope Dave Chappelle into this for a solid (if kind of out of place) guest spot. It’s a solid cast! I just wish they had a better script to work with…
If this plot is representative of the ones in those movies, I think we should rename the next remake to A STAR IS OBSCURED or maybe A STAR IS SOMEWHERE IN THIS, because Lady Gag’s Ally is not driving this plot at all. She gets a huge chunk of screen time to be sure which she takes full advantage of, but everything in this movie is focused on Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine; it’s his arc, his faults, his relationships, and how it all affect Ally. To a certain extent, this isn’t inaccurate as powerful and talent women are constantly being held accountable for the faults of their spouses, but it never feels like this film is ABOUT that and instead is just another story with that patriarchal framework. Ally barely talks to anyone other than Jackson and even the conversations that aren’t WITH him are still ABOUT him. It wouldn’t be so jarring if his character was a particularly interesting version of the cliché he’s playing (imagine if Jeff Bridges character in Crazy Hart hit rock bottom three decades earlier) but we spend so much time fixating on his story when Ally’s is much more interesting, though you’d hardly be able to tell that considering how much they cut around her progression as a musical artist to instead watch more of Bradley Cooper drinking and being a jerk to everyone around him. It’s not like a story about self-destruction can’t be engaging (*cough* Leaving Las Vegas *cough*), but I was not expecting it to be the emphasis of this story and where this ultimately ends up going isn’t… unrealistic I guess, but not what I’d call a satisfying conclusion which could have gone in a much better (and just as realistic) direction.
It just feels like Cooper was making this out of ego and so the elements around him (i.e. the far more interesting characters) fall to the wayside to keep him front and center. I’m sure most of us have heard the story of how he took off Lady Gaga’s makeup in the screen test, and that kind of condescending attitude is prevalent throughout the movie. In fact, if this movie can be said to have done ONE thing well other than shine a light on Lady Gaga’s acting chops, it’s given me a greater appreciation for La La Land and Phantom Thread; both films I was rather passé about but certainly had a better handle on their flawed male leads. Heck, the latter film even had a scene of its main character forcefully taking off their co-star’s makeup which is treated as creepy and controlling (which it is) and not a cute on-set story (which it’s not). If Cooper was going into this movie with the mindset that it’s appropriate to personally remove someone else’s make up (he could have just HANDED her the wipe!) as a way of making her more “authentic”, well that kind of explains why I found the film so off putting; especially since this is absolutely an AUTEUR film with Cooper serving as star, writer, director, and producer. You know! Just like Tommy Wiseau who ALSO seemed to have issues with women! Okay, maybe it’s going a bit far to say that Cooper has any sort of genuine animosity towards women or makeup or whatever, but the movie’s framing (intentional or not) just left me feeling uneasy about the production itself rather than about the characters on screen; especially with the nudity they throw in here. I don’t know, I might be turning a mountain into a mole hill here, but I found it kind of creepy and unnecessary for the writer, director, producer, and star, to have multiple sex scenes with one of the most famous musicians in the world; certainly more famous than HE is. It’s a lot of small things, but it all just snowballs together into giving the film an air of sleaziness on the part of Bradley Cooper’s character that I think was SOMEWHAT intended, but not to the extent that I was feeling throughout.
Even with all that, I GUESS it’s not the worst thing out there? You’ve got strong performances by some seriously talented leads as well as one of the more engaging supporting casts I’ve seen in a while, but the lack of unique direction as well as a story that feels absurdly outdated kept me from loving it the same way that some may critics seem to. Maybe I’ve still got a few more scrapes in the contrarian barrel and I’m blowing too much of this out of proportion (especially with the recent conversations about consent, male behavior, and the excuses we make for people who harm women fresh in everyone’s mind), but I just couldn’t get these nagging thoughts out of my head enough to appreciate the movie for what it was INTENDING to do. I’m feeling a little bit alone out here with my dispassionate misgivings about the writing so maybe bump my opinion up a point or two if you know going in what this movie is ACTUALLY about instead of like me who was basically expecting a rise to fame parable instead of a tragic love story. I’ve got enough tragedy in my life just by watching the news! I don’t need Bradley Cooper adding to that!