Movie Review: “A Star Is Born” is … weird
Copy Desk Chief
In outer space, stars are born all the time. When a dust cloud’s mass overpowers turbulence from within, it begins to collapse, releasing heat and light, and, in turn, becomes a star.
The star-rearing process is not too dissimilar in Hollywood, apparently: acute, tempestuous forces impel one person’s ascension from anonymity to glowing new heights, often leaving a trail of disarray in his or her wake.
“A Star Is Born” explores this ascent to, and descent from, stardom in Hollywood, zeroing in — somewhat — on the coy yet tough-as-nails Ally Campana, played by Lady Gaga. As Ally ascends, her newfound mentor and lover, Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper), a well-known, Los Angeles-based country singer, loses his grip on his own stardom, and begins tumbling downhill in a drug- and alcohol-induced stupor.
The film opens with their initial meeting at a drag show, where Ally, dressed as Edith Piaf and singing the canonical “La Vie en Rose,” inadvertently tempts Jack. In a disarming backstage moment, he peels back one of her slim, black eyebrows, rendering her, at once, vulnerable and captivated. The night that unfolds thereafter is punctuated by a brawl in a “cop bar,” a DIY frozen-broccoli-ice-pack and a follow-up serenade in a convenience store parking lot. As their romance escalates, she hesitantly follows him on stage, and then follows him on tour and then follows him into a singing career.
It’s clear that the two cling to something in one another that is absent from themselves: she admires his fame, while he longs for her anonymity and naïveté. Yet, with her growing stardom, their relationship becomes less symbiotic: as she swells with celebrity, his fame and well-being trickle away, and Ally is forced to reconcile her exploding career with Jack’s mental health and substance abuse issues.
Lady Gaga, of course, is fabulous: her riveting, hard-hitting performance is the needle that threads the film together. Stripped of the abstract, performance-art persona that she is so well-known for, Lady Gaga brings a very precise vulnerability, a human element, to Ally that, for the viewer, is both harrowing and heartwarming. Cooper’s performance is also strikingly compelling and far-reaching, even for him.
“A Star Is Born,” overall, is good; its emotiveness, fast-paced tempo and stellar performances deliver a highly watchable film. Its cinematography and score are laudable, and it packs punches that are swift and gut-wrenching.
Yet, a certain abruptness permeates “A Star Is Born” in a manner that crams plotlines like sardines. One stark example is Ally and Jack’s (spoiler!) decision to marry at the behest of Jack’s friend, whom Ally hadn’t met before, practically minutes after she’d frantically flown across the country looking for him, beginning to assume the worst. (She wasn’t that far off: that morning, he woke up in said friend’s yard after blacking out during his own concert.)
Despite just a few months of knowing each other and more than enough red flags (one of which, I would argue, was that heinous guitar-string wedding ring), this bizarre marital twist is framed as a good thing. Perhaps this might’ve made more sense in 1976, when the Barbra Streisand -Kris Kristofferson version was released, but, in 2018, it feels more forced and out-of-touch — and just weird.
In one particularly tone-deaf plotline, when her agent tries to convince her to change her hair color, Ally resists, citing her natural color as an integral aspect of her identity and her on-stage presence. It’s a great scene, a moment very emblematic of whom we’ve understood Ally to be — until shortly thereafter, when she dyes her hair red, inexplicably. Although, eventually, her natural color does reappear for an encore, it’s hard to gauge what is to be gleaned from this.
Furthermore, it feels that her success as a performer is predicated upon — or, at least, subsequent to — this new hairdo. It’s not until she dyes her hair, after all, that she’s featured in magazine photo shoots, winning major awards and asked to tour around the world. This artificial-hair-color-equals-Hollywood-success bit might work better with a celebrity like Jack, for whom, we are constantly reminded, fame is a curse. Yet Ally is emphatically contrasted against Jack; she, for the most part, harmonizes with fame just as seamlessly as she harmonizes her vocals.
“A Star Is Born” is littered with disjointed, poorly thought-out scenes and concepts like this — anecdotes that, ultimately, don’t make much sense and do very little for the film. The fixation on Jack’s family history in Arizona is another good example. This entire storyline boils down to one irrefutably cringeworthy scene, in which Jack and his brother (Sam Elliott) hold each other close and unpack their entire past for a few minutes too long, their voices so excruciatingly coarse that I actually got a headache listening to it.
And because the plot is so jam-packed with distracting storylines, there is less focus on the star, the reason (let’s be honest) that we all wanted to see the movie. Ally’s rise from an employee at a catering hall to a three-time Grammy nominee booked for the season finale of SNL — with Alec Baldwin, nonetheless — seems to happen in, like, a week. There is hardly any attention given to her pre-Jack days, her grappling with sudden fame, her struggles as a performer, the persona she adapts as a performer (which, for the record, also shifts abruptly without explanation) — none of that.
Rather, most of her story literally revolves around Jack: performing with Jack, touring with Jack, tending to Jack, fighting with Jack, marrying Jack and so on. This, again, seems more in step with a film released in the 1970s, or the 1950s, or the 1930s — like the first three versions of “A Star Is Born.”
Clearly, Jack’s issues with substance abuse are a vital aspect of the film. And, to the filmmakers’ credit, these issues are explored compellingly, and with tact. But, in focusing so much on Jack, the film brushes over too many opportunities to explore Ally. It’s name, after all, is “A Star Is Born,” not “A Star Has Fallen.”