Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" Is Middle-Of-The-Road Melodrama

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die, but “A Star Is Born” certainly doesn’t, arriving as the third remake of the 1937 Oscar-winner of the same name. The 2018 version sees A-list actor Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”) make his directorial debut, co-scripting with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and starring alongside New York native Stefani Germanotta, known to the world at large as pop superstar Lady Gaga. Cooper’s performance as grizzled rocker Jackson “Jack” Maine is good, his direction workmanlike. But it’s Gaga’s presence as love interest and musical ingénue Ally that informs the movie’s successes and failures.

Musically “A Star Is Born” feels like the final stage of the “Bad Romance” singer’s meticulous metamorphosis from dance music icon to roots rock crooner, a transformation set into motion when her fantastically underrated 2013 album “ARTPOP” flopped. The years since have seen the bandwagon gradually fill back up, spearheaded by a Super Bowl halftime show and a middling soft rock album (“Joanne”).

But Gaga the pop dynamo always wore her singer-songwriter influences on her sleeve. Having never really abandoned her dive bar roots, there was no need to go back to them. It follows that “A Star Is Born,” like “Joanne,” is flaky, flavorless, and hopelessly performative; a token modernization of a story that didn’t require it.

Consider for a moment the towering Springsteen-isms that flecked Gaga’s excellent 2011 LP “Born This Way.” (The late Clarence Clemons of E Street Band fame even recorded a pair of sax solos for the album shortly before his death.) Now jump forward seven years to “Shallow,” the musical centerpiece of “A Star Is Born.” The acoustic guitar-based ballad (its chorus in particular) comes off like a duet Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith never recorded. Wonderful! But its placement is a precursor to the film’s bizarre, disingenuous anti-pop music leanings (Ally soon becomes an archetype of a robotic pop star with a farcically heinous manager) and a deep disinterest in the psychology of Jack and Ally.

It doesn’t help that Gaga and her co-star have questionable chemistry.

As Jack and Ally’s romance flashes by in moments, in snapshots sometimes devoid of context, it becomes increasingly difficult to fill in the blanks. Jack’s relationship with his much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), whose gravelly drawl he’s borrowed and made his own, goes the same way. Their verbal jousting is enjoyable (When is Sam Elliott’s voice not a treat?) but Cooper and his co-writers impart little else of the brothers’ relationship, with Elliott floating in and out of the story until called upon for an emotional catharsis that feels more obligatory than earned.

Ally never quite comes off as a real human being either; par for the course in a lusty melodrama, but a dealbreaker in a movie that wants so badly to be earthy and raw and rock and roll. (Gaga, a relatively inexperienced actor, is passable but not impressive.)

The songs fare similarly. While not especially memorable, they sure are big, going a long way in explaining the movie’s early critical and financial success. The picture’s broadness (including its laughably vague treatment of addiction and depression) is perfectly situated for movie-of-the-moment status, the kind of pop culture event that people choose to obsess over, merit notwithstanding.

It’s tough to gauge if this was Cooper’s aim. If he was going for middlebrow musical melodrama in the vein of “The Rose” and “The Bodyguard,” bullseye. If not, he’s come up with a pretty bad impression of a prestige drama – a lazy fly ball that some will inevitably mistake for a home run. Its pleasures are firmly in its fleeting moments of musical discovery, when its leads cut through their lack of natural chemistry to find glimmers truth on the neck of a guitar; on the keys of a piano. Step back from those moments though, and “A Star Is Born” is shallow indeed.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 5, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse)