It’s rare these days to have an “event” movie trailer for a film that isn’t part of some superhero universe, or to have intense critical buzz around a film that doesn’t scratch some modish political itch. But A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, which plants him and Stefani Germanotta — yes, okay, better known as Lady Gaga — in the famous thrice-made story, managed both feats this summer and fall: First there was a trailer, carried along by both Cooper and Gaga’s vocals, that set the Internet’s jaded cinephiles abuzz, and then there were some early leaked reviews that threw around words such as “masterpiece” to describe Cooper’s first outing in the director’s chair.
What that pre-release buzz speaks to, I think, is a hunger among some people — maybe not enough, but some! — for Hollywood as it used to be, a place that put big vivid stars in grown-up movies with strong scores and watched the crowds turn out to watch them. Sure, A Star Is Born is in its way a pre-sold property just like the latest X-Men or Star Wars film. But it’s been 40 years since the last version of the story, not 18 months, and the pre-sold promise here is adult, old Hollywood, star-studded, sweeping, and romantic, qualities that precious few of today’s blockbusters evoke.
So now, at last, we have the film itself . . . and I regret to inform you that the trailer was better. Which is not the worst insult possible, since the trailer was a genuine marvel of salesmanship while the film is merely good. Or, to be more precise, great and then mediocre, with a beginning that’s basically wonderful, a middle act that feels truncated, and a finale that wallows in pathos that it hasn’t done enough to earn.
The opening gives us Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a true rock star in a pop-star world, playing to sold-out houses in a raspy, almost Neil Young voice and then retreating into booze and pills in the privacy of his limo. That limo, in search of another drink for its passenger, drops him off at a drag bar where Gaga’s Ally, an outer-borough waitress with great pipes and a half-askew nose and a lot of broken dreams, happens to be singing “La Vie en Rose” for a mostly cross-dressed crowd. She’s amazing, Maine is smitten, he meets her afterward, and they wander the city till dawn talking songwriting . . . and the next thing she knows he’s whisked her off to his tour, dragged her out on stage, and given her a star-making duet, with the kind of song that you can put on repeat for 27 plays and still find stirring. (Not that I’ve tried that or anything.)
It’s not surprising that this ascent is more thrilling than what follows — her further elevation, his decline and jealousy, the wars between them, the predictable Behind the Music stuff with alcohol and drugs. But Cooper’s gravelly, intense performance and Gaga’s aching eyes and strange off-kilter beauty together make the clichés of the opening act feel fresh and new, and there are a lot of interesting relationships in the script that could have been used to do the same in the later sections — the bond between Cooper’s Maine and the older brother (Sam Elliott) who raised him, the relationship between Ally and her limo-driver dad (Andrew Dice Clay), the contrast between Maine’s struggles and the comfortable domesticity of his old musician pal Noodles (Dave Chappelle).
But all of these strong-chemistry connections get short shrift as the film rushes through a tedious price-of-fame plot in which Ally gets a sinister-Brit manager (Rafi Gavron) who wants to push Jackson out of her life and turn her into some sort of Britney-circa-2001 sex kitten, with awful dyed hair and backup dancers. His character barely registers — it’s just a dull riff on Simon Cowell — even as his plans accelerate Ally’s stardom and the story without leaving any time to breathe.
What A Star Is Born really needed, I think, was a stronger middle act, a longer period of happiness for its main twosome — something like the loose, silly, on-the-road scenes in Almost Famous, where we get to see the rock-star life at its most freewheeling and artistically fulfilling before the corruption and the fall. Or it needed the courage to make Cooper’s character more of a creep in his descent and less of just a pitiable wreck, instead of just offloading the villainy to the Brit producer. Or . . . well, I’m not sure, but it needed something else, some further burst of creativity, to make the final tragedy feel earned and to give the ending the wallop of the start.
As it is, the movie confirms Cooper’s outsize talents and proves that Gaga is far more transfixing as an ordinary person than as a pop-star freak. That’s not a bad achievement. But those looking for a true pop masterpiece, alas, won’t quite find it here.