When the 2018 remake of old Hollywood standby A Star is Born dropped, it marked the culmination of over a decade’s worth of effort to update the well-worn tale into something that might entice modern audiences. At its helm was first-time feature film director Bradley Cooper who, up until that point, had enjoyed leading man status for the likes of David O. Russell and Cameron Crowe, while also playing a number of slimeballs and scumbags for Todd Phillips and various, like-minded studio comedy journeymen. Though some inevitably expressed skepticism over The Hangover stars’ ability to make the filmmaking leap, and many others invested in the Lady Gaga of it all, A Star is Born ‘18 proved to be such a commercial and critical success that the question of Cooper’s auteur status would have to be entertained.
But, more importantly, 2018 also brought us The Mule, Clint Eastwood’s 37th feature as director and his second collaboration with Cooper, following their bold, controversial take on American Sniper’s Chris Kyle. Far less fraught than that film, The Mule is one of Eastwood’s numerous end-of-life/career elegiacs with a meta-hook, the director casting himself alongside actual family members in a final, melancholic attempt at redemption which includes a passing-of-the-torch moment between the screen legend and his apparent protege — Cooper. This gesture made sense when taken alongside A Star is Born, a project inherited from Eastwood that probably (and not so coincidentally) strongly resembled his work, with its efficient visual stylings and thematic pursuits, akin to something like Million Dollar Baby or Honkytonk Man. But while Cooper was able to successfully riff on Clint’s template for his debut, it makes sense that he’d go bigger with his follow-up — the Scorsese-and-Spielberg-produced Leonard Bernstein biopic, Maestro — although he may have been a bit hasty in casting off that dependable Eastwoodian restraint.
Performing as understudy to his iconic producers — both considered directing the project themselves at some point in recent years — Cooper once again assumes responsibility behind the camera and in front of it, effectively channeling the reckless, joyful spirit (and intense narcissism) of Bernstein, whose fast-talking charm and assured genius fit into the actor’s skill set comfortably. Covering the bulk of Bernstein’s professional career as conductor and composer, Maestro hems in the scope of this incredible life by framing its narrative around his relationship with actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Bernstein, a barely closeted gay man, and Montealegre, a straight woman, are drawn together at a party by chance; fascinated and compelled by one another, they quickly fall in love and agree to marry. Of course, their love for each other isn’t exactly symmetrical, and though Montealegre believes in her husband’s genius and thinks she can accept his relationships with men on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, the weight of her sacrifices and his neglect eventually grind her down, a sort of cancer the film implies eventually metastasizes to the lung.
Cooper attempts the high-wire act of appealing to the living children of his subjects (i.e., the estate), while also depicting Bernstein honestly and artfully, but he’s ultimately undone by this challenge, falling into a number of biopic-specific traps along the way (clumsy expository dialogue, undermining dramaturgy in favor of chronology, etc.). Maestro isn’t a totally starry-eyed depiction of Bernstein by any means, but the way it apologizes for and redeems him via his wife’s battle with cancer feels unsatisfying and evasive, and at odds with what Cooper (and Mulligan) seemed to be angling for up till the film’s three-quarter mark. Otherwise an odd mishmash of stylistic choices — the first quarter or so attempts to approximate the aesthetics of a then-contemporary Hollywood musical, to dubious, annoying effect — largely informed by Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Lenny, one can see just enough of Cooper in the film (mostly thanks to his stellar performance) such that Maestro isn’t a total wash, but he gets lost among the warring voices and sensibilities at play here, with most things about the production marred by a sense of uncertainty. One could imagine a sturdier, more focused version of Maestro in line with Eastwood’s downbeat anti-musical Jersey Boys, or the manic sadness of his Charlie Parker biopic Bird (or better still, J. Edgar, a film that interrogates its subject in ways this one can’t), which feel like they’re very much in Cooper’s wheelhouse. The film we have received, though, suggests maybe we don’t really understand what that means for this filmmaker yet, and perhaps, neither does he.
DIRECTOR: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: November 22; STREAMING: December 20; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 9 min.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.