A STAR IS BORN Review: A Stirring Duet Becomes a Limp Near-Solo
A Star Is Born peaks about 45 minutes into its 136 minute runtime. At that point, Bradley Cooper’s alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine coaxes Ally, played by Lady Gaga, out onto the stage to sing a duet. The song, called “The Shallow”, was written on the fly the night before as Maine drunkenly whisked Ally from bar to bar on a first date of sorts after seeing her perform. Maine was already convinced of her singing talent up to that point, but the improvised lyrics she belts out, inspired by details of his life he has divulged to her in his impaired state, cements her potential.
The song is a powerhouse, a soaring ballad that perfectly utilizes the talents of its performers. The making of the movie is justified just for having led to the production of it. And as a particularly potent emotional high, it also serves as a perfect climax to the first half of the film, which efficiently charts the charming, burgeoning romance between the two stars.
But this is A Star Is Born, the fourth telling of this story that’s made its way to the screen to date. Therefore the film is not just a romance, but a tragic one. We don’t get just the rise, but the fall as well, and that’s where this newest adaptation truly stumbles. Audiences who are familiar with any other version of the film know exactly where it’s going. Those who aren’t can probably guess. It hasn’t been long after the last notes of that centerpiece number fade for the first time that an air of inevitability and obligation set in. And we still have a long ways to go.
In addition to starring, Cooper also takes up directing duties and helped write the screenplay. The film proves him a capable hand as a first-timer, moving in for countless stunning close-ups during performances and beautiful cinematography documenting the life of a musical artist. Scenes detailing Maine’s bouts of drunkenness match his stumbling with the camera. But Cooper’s role in the writing is where the film seems to falter. In the back half of the film, Maine begins to dominate the narrative in a manner that suggests Cooper putting his hand on the scale. More and more screentime is devoted to him and his substance abuse, which seems to come, go, then come back harder in a continuous feedback loop. Older adaptations depicted his struggle well, but they never gave it this much space or repetition.
Maine as a character gets much more detail in his life and story as well, a depth that’s never given to the film’s titular star. We learn that Maine’s drinking started with his low-life dad, a complicated figure for how he factors into Maine’s relationship with his much older brother, played by Sam Elliott. Elliott acts as Maine’s manager and general fixer, picking up after his messes and making sure he gets where he’s going safely. His influence on Maine is clear; Cooper chooses an incredibly Elliott-esque accent for his performance, a fact that doesn’t go unremarked upon in the film. There’s also a needlessly added bit about Maine suffering from tinnitus that further complicates the character's struggles.
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A lot of sympathy is devoted to Maine once the downward spiral sets in. Empathy for even the most flawed characters is usually the goal and far from a problem. But the rest of the film, including Ally’s new fledgling career, gets crowded out in favor of following Maine down to the bottom of his bottle. At a certain point the film’s empathy even begins to turn into agreement with his perspective, in the particular case of how we’re meant to view Ally’s music. See, Maine is one of those true artist “be honest with your art” guys, and he looks down on Ally’s initial transformation into a more conventional pop star. And the film seems to impress upon the audience that we should feel the same condescension, a notion that turned me off to Maine and the rest of the film immediately.
It’s a true shame, because the performances serving this story are very good. Cooper is a charismatic star and has surprising singing chops. Lady Gaga has been in films before, but never in a starring role, and she proves herself a commanding presence. Early in the film she nails the flustered disbelief of the tumultuous happenstances marking her path to stardom. Even as Ally settles comfortably into her new life, a piece of that shock seems to remain with her. Together, Cooper and Gaga make a great pair, and the film is at its best when they appear as collaborators playing off of each other to make the best of the drama. A shame that one of them takes off for their big solo in the middle.
A Star Is Born is currently playing in theaters everywhere.