Bradley Cooper is getting heaps of praise — and even generating Oscar buzz — for “A Star Is Born,” his ambitious undertaking (as co-writer, director and star) of the oft-told Hollywood drama. (This is the fourth screen remake, if the 1932 film “What Price Hollywood?” counts as the original). And some of those accolades are deserved. It is very easy to lean into the first 45 minutes of this classic romantic drama set in the music industry, like the 1976 version featuring Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga is sensational. She can belt out a tune like nobody else, and as an actress here she conveys both spunk and self-doubt in equal measure. (She’s reminiscent of Rosanna Arquette in that regard).
The problem is whenever Cooper turns the film away from his best asset (Gaga) and into a vanity production. Yes, his character, Jackson Maine, a singer on a downward spiral, is an alcoholic. And no, his self-destruction is not fun to watch. But if there is any one theme the film cudgels the viewer with it is what Jack tells Ally, “talent comes everywhere but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.” But from watching Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” it just does not seem clear what the filmmaker is trying to say.
This goes beyond Jack's mumbling voice. There have been media reports about how Cooper worked with a coach to create his tinnitus-suffering character’s gravelly voice. Apparently, Coop Meryled it, and worked really hard at sounding like Sam Elliott. And that explains why he cast the real Sam Elliott as Bobby, Jack’s thirty-years-older brother. The plan may have backfired; Elliott effortlessly steals his every scene and when he disappears from the film for a while, it’s hard not to want to go with him. The sibling rivalry subplot — which even includes a line (used twice) about Jack stealing Bobby’s voice — seems perfunctory. It works only to telegraph the tragic denouement, which generates more relief than emotion when it finally comes.
But back to the beginning. Jack (Bradley Cooper) discovers Ally (Lady Gaga) in a drag bar, where she performs live vocals that upstage the lip-synching drag queens. Her literally head-turning performance gets Jack’s attention, and it is hard not to be enchanted by this moment.
But that's followed by a goofy backstage bit where he asks about her fake eyebrows, followed by a scene in a bar where reassures her about singing her own songs. His encouragement here, and in a lovely subsequent scene in a parking lot where she performs for him, are magical. This sequence culminates with Jack dropping Ally off and wanting “to take another look” at her in what is contrived to be the film’s grand romantic gesture. These early scenes show the promise Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has — and fails to maintain.
The romance between Jack and Ally is neither convincing nor compelling. They should have mutual respect — she is grateful to him, but he treats her worse as her star rises, making her seem needy and co-dependent. At one point, she refuses to go on tour without him, to prove how much she loves him, but her decision seems based more on obligation that any true emotion. Moreover, when someone tells Jack, “She loves you too much to tell you [the truth],” it is practically risible. There is some chemistry between the leads, but not as much as Coop thinks. His drunk insistence that she’s beautiful comes off more sleazy than sexy in his guttural voice.
Ally’s story is classic wish-fulfillment. She gets a rich, handsome celebrity husband who plucks her out of obscurity and the house of her working-class father (nicely played by Andrew Dice Clay). She goes on stage at stadium concerts reluctantly at first to sing her song (“The Shallow”) that delivers goosebumps. He encourages her to perform at more concerts, which leads to her getting a manager Rez (Rafi Gavron), cutting a record, getting a billboard in LA, and performing on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live.” Through it all, she can’t believe her luck. She also consistently questions her talent and her nose. (A nod to Streisand, perhaps?)
Ally is nominated for three Grammy Awards, and it is at the awards show where Jack embarrasses himself on stage. It is arguably the most cringe-inducing awards show scene committed to film since Pia Zadora’s unintentionally hilarious bit in “The Lonely Lady” (1983).
Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” could have used a little “Lonely Lady” campiness. There is a hint of this when Ally accuses Jack of being jealous of her success and he smears a cream pastry in her face. However, this bit comes off as more mean-spirited than corny. When Jack proposes to Ally using a twisted guitar string as a ring, that’s corny. Unacceptably, Cooper’s screenplay sinfully omits a variation on the classic line from the 1937 and 1954 versions, “This is Mrs. [Norman] Maine!”
Too much of Cooper’s film becomes painfully earnest. Jack’s heart-to-heart talk with his friend George (Dave Chappelle), who finds him passed out in the grass on his street, is lip service. Ally talks repeatedly about “not knowing who she is anymore.” She dyes her hair, symbolizing her drastic life change, and even sings a song which includes the earworm of a refrain, “Why did you do that do that do that to me?” to overstate the obvious.
He starts drinking again, and the couple fights, saying nasty things to one another. But it is hard to care — especially about him. Jack is a trainwreck whose spite stems her success, which wasn’t the case in the 1954 version. When Jack talks to his therapist Carl (Ron Rifkin) in rehab about his past, his self-pitying is explained. But the emotions feel unearned. His alcoholism may be a disease, but his career slide appears to be simply a demotion to playing guitar, rather than singing in a Roy Orbison tribute. In the 1937 and 1954 versions, Norman Maine simply could not get hired.
The film’s focus on Jack’s troubles and trauma make the film seem self-indulgent. Cooper the actor chews the scenery when he stumbles around drunkenly, while Cooper the director provides himself with numerous close-ups and shirtless scenes, making sure he is displayed well despite Jack’s bad behavior. Most viewers may just long for the unkempt Jack to wash his hair. Perhaps Cooper deliberately focused on himself so that straight guys dragged by their girlfriends will maintain some interest in this overlong and underwhelming soap opera. (Women and gay men will be more than satisfied by the film’s showcasing of Lady Gaga).
The editing and pacing are haphazard, especially in the film’s second half. Cooper cuts to or from scenes abruptly, forcing viewers to recalibrate on events such as Bobby’s reappearance. The film feels choppy and rushed after the stronger first half took the time to set up the characters and their relationship.
“A Star Is Born” ends with a show-stopping performance by Ally that is meant to jerk tears, and it will for some viewers who give in to the sentiment. But Cooper’s film isn’t intended to be mawkish. It is meant to be swoon-inducing. It isn’t. This “Star” fails to thrive.