Monday, October 8, 2018

Thoughts On 2018’s A Star Is Born

2018’s A Star Is Born:


Spoiler alerts, if that’s possible with this well trodden story.

Why only 5.6? Well: 

The first part of the movie drags. Cooper’s drunkenness isn’t convincing. We’re just presented with it. But he’s so good looking, in such great physical shape, tanned not sunburnt, with beautiful white teeth, with such bright clear eyes; he’s so nice and sunny and sweet and sincere; so, with all that, the image of him as a wasting drunk falls flat. He doesn’t bring it off “organically.” The movie imposes his drunkenness on us with scenes of his drinking that don’t add up. This points to a problem in the movie: it’s cliche ridden and for too much of the time doesn’t earn the emotions and responses it’s trying to evoke.

Gaga is a wooden actress—at least in this film she is. She has no natural on screen sizzle, grace or charisma. She looks dull, doughy and awkward. Her acting is forced. My impression of her and Cooper at the beginning of the movie and for about its first 2/3ds is that they’re more than anything actors trying to play their parts, him a terribly damaged, on-the-skids music star, her an undiscovered ingenue. The very opening scene when she’s walking down the alley singing and then takes a turn as if to an audience seems so unnatural as to be artificial. And the first song she sings in the drag queen cabaret suggests as well the same problem: as she belts out in a booming way La Vie En Rose, we see the talent of Lady Gaga pretending it’s something else, the undiscovered, untested local talent of a performing neophyte. She’s playing at her role: she doesn’t become it.

The scene when she and Cooper meet each other and then the scenes that pass after between them are stilted, near to dead, in their lack of genuine chemistry. Given that their story, their love story, is at the heart of this movie, albeit most often in cardiac arrest, the woodenness  between them deadens much of the whole thing, makes it move too slowly and frustrated me as I kept looking at my watch, wondering if the patient could be revived.

The descent into predictable contrived cliche, betokening a failure of directorial nerve and some laziness too, is evident in two scenes among others.

In the shower scene after the catastrophe of the Grammies, where Gaga’s father, Andrew Dice Clay, giving a stolid performance throughout, lets the shower run on a supine, drunk-wrecked Cooper at a time in the movie when it’s actually picking up emotional steam as Gaga’s and Cooper’s acting tends to come alive, we see Gaga getting soaked, strewn over her man, desperate  to help him,  immiserated by his utter falling apart. There is real pathos here. It’s affecting. And so we’re given a few seconds of it. Then rather than prolonging the scene a little longer to let that pathos penetrate us, to allow us fully to experience their then misery and hopelessness, the scene abruptly ends and we’re shifted on to something new.

The second is near the movie’s end, after Cooper is out of weeks of rehab—another cliche btw, the rehab so superficially shown—and seems to be doing better, so inside his art as Gaga tells her manager, when he, Gaga’s unpleasant, authoritarian manager, has a “this is the way it is” one on one with Cooper. The manager lights the fuse that will explode in Cooper’s suicide. He tells Cooper to give up Gaga, that he’s making a fool of her, that he’s going to self destruct again inevitably and that in all that, what’s he’s done and what he inevitably will do, he’s wrecking her ascending career. He’s telling Cooper this because, he says, Gaga loves him too much ever to.  (Btw, Gaga more submissively than I’d expect or believe accepts her manager’s dictum that Cooper touring with her in Europe is out of the question.) So with what her manager tells him, and with Gaga lying to Cooper about why she isn’t going to Europe, the die, so to speak, is cast. 

Problem is, this sequence is so contrived and unrealistic, it bespeaks lazy directing. Not one conversation about this between these people so much in love? A manager will tell this to his client’s husband with no word to her? Is there no chance that, as would likely happen in life, Cooper might bring up that talk with his wife, who then presumably would fire or at least castigate her brazenly meddling manager? 

Listen, authors can tell any story they wish and it’s a principle of a certain kind of exegetical criticism that we simply accept the story as told. But an evaluative criticism wants to assess all the parts for artistic authenticity and truth. And when a story line runs so afoul of realistic probability so as to strain believability, we can rightly cry, “Foul!” 

The lazy contrivance saps the effect of Cooper hanging himself. Due to the unbelievability of this sequence, the movie hasn’t earned the drama of that suicide, somewhat like in Three Billboards, in which that movie doesn’t earn the drama of Woody Harrelson’s out of context killing himself, let alone its heedless means.

This unsatisfying contrivance in A Star Is Born unhappily complements thematic incoherence in the film. Sketched in but unrealized and undeveloped is an intriguing thematic paradox. For all his being fatally damaged goods, we’re shown true art in Cooper. There are hints for the thematic proposition that without something approaching personal darkness, authentic art can’t grow. Gaga goes in another direction. As her fame grows under the dictatorial hand of her manger—she early on tells him she doesn’t want to be separated from her own artistic truth—she loses herself in glitz and pop meaninglessness. There’s a scene when that so disgusts Cooper he walks out of one of her performances and starts drinking again. He warns her in an extended speech not to lose herself in all that pop fakery, that she doesn’t need it, the glitz, the backing dancers, the self sexualization, all of which is the antithesis, he says, of artistic truth. After that, this paradoxical theme simply fades away. There is no resolution of it that I noted. If it’s there, then I missed it. If it’s there, then what is it? To me this thematic failure suggests a director who does not fully know what he’s about in this movie. 

It can be argued her final song, slow, full of deep feeling,  in memory of Cooper is that resolution. But we have no way of knowing about that. Did she fight with her manager to sing it? Was there any kind of confrontation over her singing? Has she turned her back on what has throughout disgusted Cooper but what has birthed her stardom? Is her manager her manager still? We have no idea as to any of this. And so we have the moving song dedicated to Cooper lovely and moving, but thematically fallow in the unresolved relation between authenticity and true art.

I could go on with instances of what doesn’t work and what’s lacking. But enough of that.

What gives this movie a pass and a bit of change, to my mind, is that in its about last third, as I noted, it picks up emotional resonance. Cooper in the process of his final downfall, his acting chops finally coming to the fore, becomes a rounded, fully realized character with depth. He even manages to pull Gaga at times into a better acting orbit. The scene, for example, where she lies about why she’s not going to Europe works as she conveys genuine but unadmitted regret and Cooper knowing that she’s lying but doesn’t let her in on it that he knows, that scene is effective and complex. Sam Elliott’s acting too helps save the movie from failure (though the scene where Cooper clobbers him and then the brothers have it out, all recriminatory anger, is overwrought and drowns in all we’re being told and not shown.) And also on the saving side, the music is pretty good and is nicely integrated into the film. 

So as I say, 5.6 out of 10

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