Musically sharp and dramatically flat, the latest version of “A Star is Born” starts impressively and falls off suddenly, a sudsy, overwrought remake that drowns in its abrupt, perfunctory emotional leaps.
All this hype around Lady Gaga’s big screen debut? She’s imitating previous “Star” Barbra Streisand (without the comic timing or pathos) for the first 40 minutes, going through the motions for the next 90.
Bradley Cooper displays solid musical chops and takes his best shot at acting smitten. But he’s the least convincing self-destructive drunk of any of the four versions of “A Star is Born.” High-functioning? There’s barely a slur or stagger to him, and aside from looks, musical talent and a hint of courtliness, where’s the attraction for a hip, talented younger woman? Aside from “He’ll be good for my career?”
As a director, Cooper leans heavily on the 1976 “Star” with Streisand and Kris Kristoffersen, artfully capturing musical performances with the camera literally on stage and up close, contrasting the hard work and bedlam of making country rock in arenas with the lonely quiet of the limo ride with a bottle afterwards, the hotel rooms, which are for passing out in until the next show.
There are gimmicks and story beats from that sad Streisand “Star” revived here — bubble baths to make the ladies swoon. But the story jerks along, never quite convincing us that this jaded superstar would take all that interest in a 30ish big-voiced belter, the only “real” woman singing (“La Vie en Rose,” in French) at a drag bar lip-sync show he drops into after his own concert to wet his whistle.
We never can figure out why Jackson Maine puts the laid-back, drunken moves on Plain Jane Ally, or what triggers the fight she starts in the next bar they hit after the drag bar closes. Gaga isn’t a good enough actress to let us see her fall head over heels, though I did buy her impulsive quit-her-job-and-accept Jackson’s offer to join him at his next show. She doesn’t give that the mercenary “This could be good for my career” edge it needs, either. Not fashionable in our #MeToo era, I suppose.
But that first moment he drags her onstage works, as Gaga’s Ally strains to summon up the guts to sing a new song composed in a super market parking lot the night before to an audience of thousands. The clips of the film used in the trailers pre-sell the songs and those early moments, which are the best scenes in a movie that peaks far too early for its own good.
Cooper stages several comically intimate exchanges between Jackson and his older brother/manager (Sam Elliott), face grabbing, nose-to-nose chats that suggest not just brotherly love, but tough guys with issues and camera blocking that wants every shot to be an extreme closeup, whenever possible. Real Western brothers like their personal space, like everybody else.
Elliott is magnificent of course, but pushing them this close together is jarring, unnatural. Dave Chapelle has a single sequence, an old friend from “the old days” who somehow knew Jackson in childhood in Arizona and who now lives in Memphis. It plays sentimental enough, and the scene at least leads to a wedding with Eddie Griffin (Remember him?) officiating.
It’s a film of impressionistic sketches for scenes, and jolting transitions between them. There’s a brief, grudging warmth between older brother Bobby (Elliott) and Ally, whom he accepts after raising an eyebrow — “Think maybe he drinks a bit much?”
The “warmth” between Ally and her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) and his gang of elderly limo drivers is goofy, with an edge — “He’s a drunk,” she says of her new beau. “You know all about drunks.”
Cooper’s intensely likable in the early scenes, and meant to be a lot less so later on. Not really. I like his world weary “Take it all in” sermons to Ally as her solo career takes flight. He gives Jackson a clinical depression (and tinnitus) back story, but doesn’t play those in ways that point in the direction (dead-end rehab scenes) the film meanders into.
The script has Gaga’s Ally going all “ugly duckling” about her looks, with other characters (particularly Jackson) constantly reassuring her she’s beautiful. That’s the message in more than a few of Gaga’s pre-“Star” pop hits, but here it comes off as needy and pointless puffery, “contractually obligated.”
I expected to be dazzled by this thing, with all the hype surrounding it. But I lost heart in it as clunky scenes clunk together, and actors manfully (and womanfully) soldier on through blown lines to achieve a “natural” feel (Ally tells her dad “Eat your dinner” in one breakfast moment, and covers for it haphazardly. This happens a few times).
“A Star is Born” is supposed to be a great, tragic romance, a Hollywood opera. I didn’t believe them as a couple, didn’t fear for their future together and didn’t mourn the laughably abrupt climax that Cooper, finally remembering the movie he was remaking, forced into the finale.
Download the soundtrack, just don’t expect too much from the movie.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chapelle, Sam Elliott
Credits:Directed by Bradley Cooper, script by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetterman, based on the earlier “Star is Born” films. A Warner Brothers/MGM release.
Running time: 2:15