I love the smell of Oscar season in the morning…
“A Star Is Born” is the third remake of the original 1937 film (which starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), following one in 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason) and then again in 1976 (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). This time around Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut and also stars as an alcoholic rock musician who meets and falls in love with a young singer (Lady Gaga). Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliot and Dave Chappelle also star.
It’s crazy to think, but there is a realistic chance that Bradley Cooper gets five Oscar nominations from this film alone (and another for his supporting work in Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule”). Cooper not only directs and stars, but produces (alongside “Hangover” director Todd Phillips, about to be a two-time Academy Award nominee himself), co-wrote the script (also his debut doing that) and will likely get a Best Original Song nod (or two) for the duets he wrote and performed with Gaga. So come sometime in January we could be living in a world where Bradley Cooper, who got his start as the pretty boy in comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Hangover” and “Yes Man,” is a 10-time Academy Award nominee. I just think that’s crazy cool.
Alright, tangent over, on with the review.
Directorial debuts don’t always go over smoothly, but if last year was any indication sometimes career performers can do a great job on their first swing behind the camera (Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig both earned Oscar nods for their films). Much like Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” the direction in “A Star Is Born” is pretty nuanced and that doesn’t always lend itself to a film; for example the deft performances in “Loving” work but the simple direction of the story does not. But luckily Cooper’s touch and the way he chose to shoot some sequences are the stuff of someone who has multiple films under their belt and his work with himself and his actors is also very well handled.
Shot by Matthew Libatique (who ironically also worked as the cinematographer on this week’s other new release, “Venom”), much of the film is shot in close-ups, making the audience feel the emotions of the actors and trapping them in the space with them. Like simple direction, sometimes this is not for the best as it doesn’t give actors room to breathe but for what Cooper set out to do the choice worked wonderfully. There is not a scene that goes by that subtle glances or expressions go unnoticed, and you know exactly what a character is thinking or feeling without them needing to say it.
There is one sequence in the film early on that is genuinely anxiety-inducing in that it puts you right in Lady Gaga’s shoes and just the way it is shot and composed and edited is just *Italian Chef Kiss* masterclass; I had chills when it was over and my friend turned to me and said “my heart is pounding right now.” It will be the scene that becomes the most viewed on YouTube for years to come for a few reasons but it is without a doubt the best one in the whole film.
Cooper and Gaga play very well off each other and we get nice (and surprising?) dramatic turns from career comedians Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay, even if they are essentially glorified cameos. It is also always a treat to see Sam Elliot pop up in things, even if his trademark growl, especially when he is talking to Cooper’s raspy self, makes it hard to make out a few lines of dialogue out.
The film does sag a bit in the middle for reasons I don’t really want to get into, but the first hour this is truly great and the climax makes up for the second act. The performances are emotionally resonating, the songs are hum-worthy and the film is shot and edited in a very impressive and appealing way. I can’t say “A Star Is Born” is the best movie of 2018 but it is certainly one of them, and as far as rookie directorial efforts and leading performances go, Cooper and Gaga have set the bar high for the next people who try.
Critic’s Grade: A–