A Star is Born

(2018) ** 1/2 R
135 min. Warner Bros. Director: Bradley Cooper. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle.

/content/films/5130/1.jpgIn the new iteration of A Star is Born, a rock star and his protégé fall for each other between two renderings of her song “Shallow,” with its line “We’re far from the shallow now.” They’re definitely “off the deep end” of love, but the movie they’re in isn’t as deep as it wants us to believe. For a movie obsessed with artists having something to say, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born turns out to be muddled in its commentaries on (bad?) romance and art versus commerce.

Cooper pulls a Clint Eastwood by starring and directing for Warner Bros (Eastwood originally planned to direct his own A Star is Born with Beyoncé), in what marks the actor’s directorial debut. As country-fried rock star Jackson Maine—a sort of hybrid of Jack White and Eddie Vedder—Cooper drops his speaking voice to a Sam Elliott drawl and convincingly performs gravelly tunes for packed arenas. After one such show, the hard-drinking, pill-popping Maine stumbles into a drag bar, where he’s transported by the odd-woman-out non-drag performance of “La Vie en rose” by a woman named Ally (dolled up to evoke Edith Piaf).

The gal’s got pipes…and that indefinable something called star power. Jackson sees it, along with her beauty and her soul. They spend the night together (sans sex), hanging out, getting into trouble, and singing one of her original tunes in progress. So when Maine finally convinces Ally to come backstage at his next arena show, he invites her center stage to debut her song to the world in harmony with Maine. That heady rush seals the deal for a love affair, but one darkened by his addictions and professional jealousy, and their ambitions, with career demands pulling them apart.

Subtlety is not the strong suit of the screenplay by Eric Roth (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) & Cooper and Will Fetters. Cooper nods to the earlier versions of this story that share the same title, the Janet Gaynor-Fredric March version from 1937, the Judy Garland-James Mason starrer from 1954, and the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version from 1976, but mostly the last of these. Jackson Maine might as well be Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard and, at least initially, Ally resembles Streisand’s Esther. By the time the film acknowledges the vapidity required of most up-and-coming music stars, it’s lost the thread of Ally’s character by its inept shorthand of her deal-with-the-devil commodification.

The oft-charming first half of the film establishes Ally as an artistically insecure but socially independent spitfire with real fight in her, which makes it awfully hard to buy that this frog princess would slow-boil in the music-industry pot without a fight. What’s the point of dramatizing how Maine gifts her the confidence to be authentic (itself a queasy dynamic in 2018) if she just as quickly, and inexplicably, relinquishes her truth to become a parody of the glitzy, backup-singer-enhanced pop tart? The result plays like a sour feminist fail, which could make for aching drama if Ally seemed to care a bit more about what’s being done to her. Instead, this A Star is Born gives more focus to doomed romance with a side of family drama, with Sam Elliott himself(!) as Maine’s much older brother, and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s fame-obsessed dad.

Cooper’s debut film is undeniably a big undertaking from a production standpoint, with decent songs and a creditable performance from acting neophyte Gaga. But for all its unabashed melodrama (and, okay, this is A Star is Born, after all) and industry showmanship, the film’s strongest moments are acoustic, not plugged-in: when Cooper brings director of photography Matthew Libatique’s impeccable camerawork right in close for intimate, truth-telling exchanges between lovers who want the best for each other. In those scenes, A Star is Born briefly locates its own eye-contact authenticity.

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