A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)
Just as Cooper pitches his voice down an octave to play Jackson Maine (and it’s about three octaves south of Rocket Raccoon), this iteration of the timeless tragic love story about fame and alcoholism is pitched at a lower level of melodrama. Where the Cukor version was full of big-show 1950s manipulations, this one is marked by an element of restraint and “cool,” despite its maudlin DNA and big-ballad sap. For that, it’s an easy sit: surface-level pleasurable, not annoying, and likable in a shaggy-dog way — all qualities you could also apply to Cooper himself in this movie. As both an actor and a director, he has made a cheap-seats belter; a massive crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to make huge amounts of money, and is such a surefire lock for Best Picture that even the wrong envelopes will contain its title as well.
But as every mom in the building exits their matinee screenings into blasting sunlight, wiping buckets of tears off their faces, it’s hard to shake the ultimate skimpiness of this product. Sure, it provides a hit soundtrack with a few solid gold songs, a breakthrough performance of unimpeachable quality from Lady Gaga (I can’t see how the seasoned, decades-trained actresses who lose to this relative rookie in February can complain too much), and fierce supporting work from Sam Elliott (his red-eyed face as he backs up his car away from Jackson is the most affecting shot in the movie), but is it really saying anything at all?
First of all, the alcoholism storyline, omnipresent in all the versions, I imagine (I haven’t seen most of them), is both clichéd and muddled. Is it all on Jack, as his brother argues? Or is it Not His Fault, It’s The Disease, as his wife does? Either way, as long as Cooper looks cool both in his sweaty cowboy hat holding a glass of gin or on stage with a guitar, it’s all good, right? Also, if the movie is a condemnation of fame both as a weapon of separation (the bullshit British manager character, totally false and one-dimensional) and a corrupt enemy of art (Ally’s sellout pop hits and SNL performance), then why am I watching two characters who don’t even contemplate that issue, or question why they’re so eager to be famous? Ally isn’t at her happiest when she’s with Jack; it’s when she’s showered with Grammys (barely an award, but apparently the be-all-end-all of artistic recognition) and watching her own face projected to an amphitheater of adoring fans.
Gaga herself likes to investigate the concept of fame as a two-headed beast — her first two albums were The Fame and The Fame Monster, and two of her biggest hits are “Paparazzi” and “Applause” — but the script here doesn’t allow for such introspection. It just shovels in a few platitudes about “telling your truth out there” and being who you are, or whatever, and that’s all anyone in 2018 wants to hear. This is the 5th cinematic telling of this story, but it’s very much about 2018: in an era of both social media likes/follows and of hit TV shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent, it’s never been a surer bet to release a slick Hollywood sugar-bomb giving every shower-singer and YouTuber with an Instagram page some hope that maybe she too will be able to get on stage and make everyone shut up and pay attention to her voice and one-of-a-kind songwriting chops. If everyone is a star just waiting to be discovered, then who’s left to buy a ticket to the show?