Released October 5, 2018; Directed by Bradley Cooper; Distributed by Warner Bros.; Runtime 2h 16m; Rated R
When purchasing the tickets for this movie, an older, grizzled man cut the ticket and made an offhand remark about the film. “A Star Is Born,” he said dryly. “Fourth time they’ve made this one. Theater six, to your left.”
Normally, I’m inclined to ignore the dismissive language of the jaded, but what he said stayed with me as I took my seat in the center of the theater. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a remake, but it’s been promoted as a kind of re-imagining. Rather than focus on the glamorous toxicity of fame, this film offers a raw, intimate portrayal of art and success. In many ways, it’s exactly that, but it’s beholden to the same tropes and clichés as is common in the typical rise-to-fame narrative. Point being: You’ve seen this before. Only, Cooper and Gaga are so damn good that it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen a million tortured musicians take a million amber-lit stages, baring their souls in a million different ways.
I’ll refrain from summarizing much of the plot. It’s a simple premise. Gaga’s Ally is an aspiring musician who has all but given up on success, while Cooper’s Jack is an aging Country-Rock star who’s resorted to boozing his way through his old hits to make a living. After a chance encounter at a bar, they grow enamored with one another and develop a working relationship on stage. Ally’s star rises, while Jack’s begins to fade as his substance abuse worsens.
While its premise is simple, and beholden to all of the archetypical rich-man-meets-woman narrative beats you’ve come to expect, this iteration of the classic narrative succeeds where others have fallen by the wayside. How? An insistence on unflinching intimacy and emotional honesty between the two leads.
Cooper and Gaga both give complex, varied performances here. Gaga is especially vulnerable early on, shedding much of the audience’s preconceptions about her status as a world-renowned musician. As Ally, she’s stripped down, sometimes literally, to reveal the depth of her earnest ambitions and love for Jack. We are never, as an audience, lead to believe that the love these characters share for one another is in any way imbalanced or unfair. If one character suffers, they both suffer. And there is suffering.
Cooper has lowered his voice here, lightened only by his scenes opposite the inimitable Sam Elliot. His pitch is raspy, aged, and his face is leathery – tarnished by his time in the limelight. His diminishing health walks hand-in-hand with his diminishing returns as an artist. Although Ally gives Jack a much-needed shot in the arm, the film is smart to subvert the typical woman-as-muse trope in favor of a far more honest, and visceral, portrayal of the nature of addiction. Jack is heavily flawed, and though Ally is certainly a force for good in his life, she isn’t there to save him. Nor can she.
The film is strongest when focusing primarily on the relationship between Jack and Ally, mainly due to the superlative performances of Gaga and Cooper, but also due to Cooper’s startling proficiency behind the camera. We are treated to close-up after close-up, wavering dialogue and all the “uh” and “um”s that indicate strong, believable conversation. The script has its fair share of platitudinal idioms – the type of fortune-cookie vaguery that belies many inspirational narratives – but it delivers them earnestly through the mouths of two characters that the audience trusts have each other’s best interests at heart.
The narrative needs that trust, and builds it diligently and intelligently in the film’s first half, but at times struggles to maintain focus on it as the film progresses toward its conclusion.
That isn’t to say that Cooper doesn’t know what he’s doing as a director. The smartest move he made was keeping Gaga dead-center throughout so many of the film’s more intense emotional moments. It cannot be understated how well she performs in this role.
Unfortunately, at around the mid-point, when the narrative capitalizes on an hour’s worth of anticipation by having Ally perform her first duet with Jack on-stage, the film’s carefully cultivated lacquer of authenticity begins to fade.
Following that goose-bumps inducing performance, the film becomes a juggling act between its disparate themes. Cooper seems to manage this by giving each individual element of his film equal screen-time, but all that manages to do is distend the second act into something more akin to a biopic, rather than the down-to-earth fairy tale of the film’s first hour.
One thought kept creeping into my head as addiction and toxic-fame began to take center stage. The balance between what constitutes whimsical coincidence and insightful commentary just isn’t there. Some moments are reminiscent of Scorsese’s claustrophobic portrayals of spousal conflict – raw and uncompromising – while others require a suspension of disbelief simply beyond what should be required of the audience. Considering the lengths the film goes to in order to place this film in reality – our reality – it struggles to maintain it.
The film simply struggles to resolve its plot-threads in its closing act. There’s a poorly-communicated B-Plot involving Sam Elliot’s Bobby, Jack’s brother, as well as a comically over-simplified caricature of the money-hungry Hollywood type in Ally’s manager. Jack’s back story is fleshed out in bite-sized increments and delivered through gruff, farm hand mumbling. The emotional impact that those elements intend to deliver is massive, but being the tropes that they are, eventually offer little. I’d argue that they go so far as to diminish the aforementioned narrative focus on Ally and Jack.
That will be my lasting complaint with this film. Whereas the first hour is enthralling, the latter hour and fifteen simply does too much. There’s a Dave Chappelle cameo that provides literally nothing substantive to the arcs of either character, save for what they do while in his company. The narrative moves so quickly through Ally’s rise to fame that it becomes difficult to discern exactly how much time has passed between her discovery and the accolades she inevitably receives. Time and space mean little in fairy tales, but in a film that attempts to ground itself so thoroughly, it’s frustrating that the film has so little setting to speak of.
Sure, there are sets. There are apartments and tour busses and hotel rooms and many, many stages upon which Cooper and Gaga actually performed live music. Commendable, all of it. But, the film is content to not clearly define when exactly all of this takes place, and for how long a period, preferring instead for the here and now. That’s it. It takes place in the age of smart-phones and Spotify. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. How, then, are moments of titanic personal achievement supposed to resonate with an audience when the context of spent time is lacking? Especially considering the weight of the film’s closing moments.
That isn’t to say that the film isn’t a stellar entertainment. Bradley Cooper has proven himself a competent director and vocalist, and Lady Gaga can act like it’s nobody’s business. That’s on top of her impressive vocal ability. Despite the film addressing too quickly the nature of addiction, fame, creative expression, love, and art; despite its struggle to choose which character’s lens to filter the story through, Ally’s or Jack’s; and despite all the rocky melodrama that bogs down the third act – it’s still a wonderful time at the movies.
What will stick with me, more than anything, is the image of Cooper and Gaga during their first duet, singing a song they wrote the night prior in a convenience store parking lot. When it commits to telling a fairy tale, one with its feet planted firmly on the ground – weighing its character’s aspirations against their circumstances – that’s when it shines very, very brightly.
The songs are catchy, the performances solid, the cinematography adherent to theme, and the emotional core resonant. It may be the best iteration of this old Hollywood story, flaws and all.
Score: 3.75 / 5 – Good film. See in theaters.