A Star is Born (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper
In 1938, the original script for William Wellman’s “A Star is Born” became only the eighth winner of the Academy Award for Best Story (which predated the Original and Adapted Screenplay awards). It’s only fitting that now, 80 years later, we’re treated to a third remake of this timeless story, which has changed over the years but has also remained, amazingly, very much the same. It’s a testament to that original story by Wellman and his team of writers. This time around, Lady Gaga tries to fill the shoes once worn by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand. Bradley Cooper, with a beard I wish he’d keep, plays the alcoholic country singer whose own fame is eventually eclipsed. But 2018’s 135-minute remake is really a tale of two halves. The first half put even the most skeptical doubters at ease. But the second shows that remaking a beloved 80-year-old story presents unique challenges that even the best filmmakers might have trouble conquering.
The first half of the film is a masterpiece, thanks to screenwriters Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), Will Fetters (“Remember Me”), and Bradley Cooper (who also co-wrote a couple of the songs). When Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets Ally (Lady Gaga) in a bar—singing “La Vie En Rose” really, really well—he’s filled with both professional curiosity and romantic butterflies. The whirlwind first weeks and months of their relationship see the former waitress hurdled into the spotlight, boosted by Maine. Everyone loves her. Everyone loves them. But when the crowds start to love her more than they love Maine (which is sort of the whole point of this story, after all), the movie gets ahead of itself. In the blink of an eye, their fates switch. An album is released, awards are won, and tours are planned, all with unrealistic quickness. We don’t see a title card telling us “Six months later” to help us understand how in the world Jackson Maine could be on a highly successful tour one moment, and then, seemingly the next day, take an undesirable gig that he says he needed to take for the money. The screenwriters seemed to know their beginning and their end. It was the getting there that tripped them up.
But eventually, the audience does catch back up to the story. It slows down again, like it did in the film’s down-to-earth first hour. We see long conversations between characters that are superbly written and wonderfully acted. Bradley Cooper will probably lead Oscar ballots. His deep drawl and always-a-little-drunk stupidity are as consistent as they are initially annoying. But you learn to love them, and him. Or, at least, I did. Unsurprisingly, Lady Gaga tends to overact in the film’s first hour. She has a Lady Gaga-esque confidence that Ally isn’t supposed to have yet. It’s difficult to separate the actress from the character. And eventually, as Ally becomes a Lady Gaga-esque superstar, that becomes not a bad thing. Jackson Maine is played by an actor who can sing a little (after two or more years of training for Cooper), but Cooper was smart to cast, to play Ally, a singer who can act a little. Her songs are pivotal. They set the mood and, honestly, fool you into thinking this movie is better than maybe it actually is. You don’t care because holy shit Lady Gaga can sing really well when she’s not adding unnecessary bravado to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s pretty extensive supporting cast—exclusively men (this movie fails the Bechdel Test big-time, like the previous two remakes)—are incredible. As Ally’s friend, Ramon, Anthony Ramos is a tenable sidekick and fills in where a chatty girlfriend would usually be. Playing her dad, Andrew Dice Clay is the perfect casting choice. His buddies, who he invites everywhere, are similarly great. They have a hilarious chemistry that, while not important to the movie, adds a lot anyway. Though not in the film nearly as much as you might think, Dave Chappelle comes in just at the right time with some comedic relief. And playing Jackson Maine’s much older brother, Sam Elliott gives his truest performance in years. His is the performance that will stick with you most.
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”) cooks up a feast for the eyes while our film’s stars provide some audial pleasure. The sum of all these parts makes “A Star is Born” one of the year’s best films, despite its storytelling flaws. That it cracks my own Top 3 so late in the year (though, let’s face it, movies don’t normally get good until October anyway), despite my dislike of the film’s second hour, is a testament to how good the first half is. That first hour alone is worth the ticket price.