A Star is Born is a gassy giant, indeed

Movie review: A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper writes, directs and stars in this latest revamp of a seminal Hollywood yarn that proves the nexus of progressive America remains completely conservative when it comes to its own story. On the bright side, Cooper and Lady Gaga use their first-timer adrenaline to fuel this bumpy rocket ride, creating great spectacle — if not deep drama.

A Star is Born

3/5

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chapelle, Sam Elliott

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

Better? Worse? Comparisons to previous versions are an inherent part of Bradley Cooper’s new take on A Star is Born, because they are part of its very DNA. The core story spun together by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Alan Campbell and none other than Dorothy Parker back in 1937 is still intact, but every generation expresses a string of codes differently. They mingle with the times, allowing us to survey the subtle, sometimes monumental, mutations along the way — both in our collective narrative, and the movie itself.

Cooper doesn’t question the fundamentals. This is still a story of a young woman with tons of talent who gets her shot at fame with the help, and love, of a substance-abusing has-been. What’s changed since 1937, 1954, and 1976 is the world we live in, and all the various cultural assumptions that come with it.

What does success look like? Where does the threshold for embarrassment lie? What does society value?

Over the eighty-year arc of this narrative, many things have changed. Yet, ironically, the very nexus of progressive values called Hollywood has remained entirely conservative when it comes to its own story. The politics of becoming rich and famous in show business are unchanged.

There’s always a morally compromised manager who destroys one soul to own another, an underlying and understood yearning for the spotlight, and a spiritual will to sacrifice ego in the name of art.

Over the eighty-year arc of this narrative, many things have changed. Yet, ironically, the very nexus of progressive values called Hollywood has remained entirely conservative when it comes to its own story. The politics of becoming rich and famous in show business are unchanged.

Cooper lassos it all with a western twang, calling the shots as well as stomping his feet as Jackson Maine, a late ‘90s country-rock sensation feeling the sag of midlife. He can still pack arenas, but he’s playing the same old hits.

To numb the pain of calling it in, he drinks. To hush the guilt of drinking, he drinks some more.

We meet him when he’s run out — out of booze, out of ambition, out of it. He needs more, and lucky for him, he finds it at all the nearest bar. Not only does he seize a bottle of his favourite beverage, he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a young woman who takes the stage singing Edith Piaf — and blows the wigs off every drag queen gathered around the karaoke riser.

The drag queens are a dependable comic addition, as well as an early litmus test for Jackson, and the degree of comfort in his own masculinity. They’re also a nod to our current concepts of personal truth, and expressing who you really are — even if it doesn’t look like everything else around you.

Lady Gaga’s Ally describes how she tried to make it once, but people in the business told her she needed a new nose. Convinced she didn’t have the right look, she surrendered to her fate as just another talented singer condemned to anonymity.

Jackson, of course, sees the shining diamond — a true voice — and immediately falls in love. He invites her to a show, and this is where things do get fun for the audience. Watching Gaga play first-timer backstage lets us see how she sees the rest of us, peering into her dressing room and wandering around the labyrinth with a laminate. Voyeur to fame, feeling the tickle of desire.

Gaga sans goop: Bradley Cooper’s camera captures Lady Gaga’s features without slabs of makeup. Clay Enos photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Cooper captures the wide-eyed wonder in her features. More importantly, we can actually see them without slabs of makeup. Beneath the mask of powder and pigment lies naturally big eyes and a dapple of freckles, a child-like beam powering every smile and girl-next-door grin.

Cooper lets the camera gaze into her eyes like a lover, and at times, you can’t help but think he was really falling for her in the way he finds the nape of her neck and the curve of her hips without moving in for any gratuitous moves.

There’s a gooey mood of love in every saturated frame. The romance gushes beyond the screen couple, it seeps into the pixels of the movie itself as Cooper pays homage to previous iterations and Hollywood tradition. He offers an opening title wipe a mile high in deep scarlet letters, and conjures the great romances of the 1970s with his amber tones and soft-focus closeups.

He casts Sam Elliott.

There’s a gooey mood of love in every saturated frame. The romance gushes beyond the screen couple, it seeps into the pixels of the movie itself as Cooper pays homage to previous iterations and Hollywood tradition.

Everything feels comfortably familiar, yet halfway through this plate of pleasing nostalgia and orchestrated pathos, you realize there’s not much substance between the toasted focaccia. We may love our two leads and appreciate the way they look and work together, but their characters never feel entirely developed.

The scenes they share together either work on building the romance or tearing it apart, but we don’t see the mundane moments that define true love. Every note feels a little too heavy, even when it’s whispered, and the weight of the drama causes the odd stall.

The scenes they share together either work on building the romance or tearing it apart, but we don’t see the mundane moments that define true love. Every note feels a little too heavy, even when it’s whispered, and the weight of the drama causes the odd stall.

Sadly, the edit doesn’t help. The pacing feels a little staggered, leaving the viewer to push through some melodramatic mud in the hopes of a big pay off. It’s no plot-spoiler to tell you there’s a big number in the finale, but the emotional reward is wanting despite the emoting, because we’re never truly connecting with Ally or Jackson. We’re watching them with interest, but we’re not really wanted on the voyage. We don’t belong to their world, so we gaze though the pretty picture window.

Cooper delivers more believable spectacle and upfront musical talent than any other version we’ve seen thanks to Gaga, and he really seems earnest in his attempt to make it honest and real. Even with an artificially lowered register to mimic Sam Elliott voice. Yet, as impressive as the package may be, A Star is Born feels a little limp, a little empty, a little too distracted by its own performance to let us feel the love it’s so desperate to stir.

Cooper delivers more believable spectacle and upfront musical talent than any other version we’ve seen thanks to Gaga, and he really seems earnest in his attempt to make it honest and real. Even with an artificially lowered register to mimic Sam Elliott voice.

What that says about the movie is it’s schlocky spectacle — in keeping with tradition. What that says about our times is a little more disturbing. Jackson keeps talking about the importance of saying something, not selling out, and being true. Yet, this movie says nothing, either through character or script, about what that looks like. It accepts the formula for fame and success without a single question and sells it back to us as consumer tragedy. That’s just the way it is. We’ve bought into Hollywood’s code of optics because it’s easier than ethics. We’d rather watch and repeat than rethink. That’s the way we are. I’d compare us to the way we were, but I’ll save that for The Way We Were  remake.

@katherinemonk 

Main photo: Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, Clay Enos photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
THE EX-PRESS, October 4, 2018

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Review: A Star is Born

User Rating

4 (4 Votes)

Summary

3Score

Bradley Cooper writes, directs and stars in this latest revamp of a seminal Hollywood yarn that proves the nexus of progressive America remains completely conservative when it comes to its own story. On the bright side, Cooper and Lady Gaga use their first-timer adrenaline to fuel this bumpy rocket ride, creating great spectacle -- if not deep drama. -- Katherine Monk

2 Replies to "A Star is Born is a gassy giant, indeed"

  • welcometomylayoff October 4, 2018 (1:03 pm)

    Katherine, I’ve been enjoying your movie reviews for years but I must take issue with this line: “Cooper delivers more believable spectacle and upfront musical talent than any other version we’ve seen thanks to Gaga.” You HAVE seen the 1976 version, with Kristofferson and Streisand, right? Because in terms of believable spectacle and upfront musical talent, those two are *very* hard to beat.

    • EX-PRESS EDITOR October 11, 2018 (8:10 am)

      Thanks so much… Yes! I have seen the Barbra and Kris movie. And you can’t argue with Judy Garland’s talent either… But this one captures something the others didn’t. It’s so much more about the show. Anyway, just my feelings. Maybe time to go back and re-watch them all.

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