'A Star Is Born' Is Bad, Actually

The movie is two hours of anxiety punctuated by the brief ecstasy of Lady Gaga's singing.

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Oct 12 2018, 7:50pm

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in 'A Star Is Born.' Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

So inexhaustible is our hunger for stories about celebrity, that this is the fourth retelling of A Star Is Born—the tale of an ingenue's rise to fame at the expense of the man who elevated her. The 2018 remake was directed and co-written by Bradley Cooper, who also stars as has-been rock musician Jackson Maine alongside Lady Gaga, who plays a talented singer named Ally who's stuck in a service job and living with her father. After his own concert, Jackson stumbles upon Ally performing at a local drag bar. Instantly intrigued, he chases her down and gives her the platform to achieve her dreams. Her fame eventually eclipses his own.

While this version is impressively performed and manages to revive the dated source material for 2018, it is still riddled with its predecessors' flaws: an old-school storyline that relies too heavily on celebrity idolatry and female emotional labor, plus pacing that unravels in the second act. Most disappointingly, the film just isn’t very fun.

While A Star is Born didn’t portent to be completely lighthearted, the trailers certainly dazzled with snippets of a cute, loving relationship. This is not really what we get. A Star is Born’s charm relies so precisely on the chemistry between its protagonists—the film’s most joyful moments are when Ally and Jackson are in a near transcendent state of rapport—that disliking the central relationship makes it incredibly difficult to enjoy much of the film or consider it anything other than a tragedy.

Jackson isn’t particularly likable, with his stringy hair and uncomfortable Southern twang. His fame is used as a proxy for positive characteristics, and the first act goes to great lengths to demonstrate how nice he is within this framework. A willingness to engage with laypeople despite being a celebrity is spun as a form of humility or gregarious down-to-earthness. Jackson is unperturbed by the grocery store checkout lady snapping a photo of him. At the drag bar, he gamely signs a drag queen's breastplate.

The rest of his personality amounts to one massive red flag. He suffers from alcoholism—which, to the film’s credit, is portrayed with relative sensitivity and seriousness. A Star is Born demonstrates it as a disease, hand-in-hand with mental illness, along with the cocktail of other damages Jackson sustained on his ascent to fame. Jackson is losing his hearing, and has tinnitus from performing without ear protection. He struggles with an understandable amount of jealousy, but he acts on it in a way that makes him an incredibly toxic partner. He flips between belligerent drunk and charming, doting husband throughout the film. It's a dynamic prophesied by recent American politics.

Ally falls for Jackson in the same way many movie heroines fall—by being offered validation as a balm for low self-esteem. Again, his support matters particularly because he is famous—his celebrity makes his positive appraisal of Ally’s performance, songwriting, and beauty particularly impactful. Their relationship’s most compelling moments are the "small," interstitial acts of caring, like Jackson icing Ally's hand with frozen peas, wanting to get “another look” at her, or helping Ally relax in the recording studio by reminding her she performs best with a piano (and then using his formidable wealth and clout to fly one in). His obsession with her nose felt a little too, well, on-the-nose, if you will, but the corniness was endearing.

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Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star Is Born.' Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But outside of his fame and these bits of connective tissue, the reason Ally stays with Jackson is utterly perplexing. Watching her repeatedly resign to or forgive his bad behavior is less than romantic. It's rather like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The first half of A Star Is Born spaces out these moments, at least, juxtaposing them with a fair amount of earnest performance caviar. And these high moments are almost breathtaking in their totality. Lady Gaga, as Ally, nails her rendition of “La Vie En Rose.” Ally bashfully covering her eyes in disbelief the moment she belts the volcanic riff in “Shallow” is a delivery so powerful it spawned dozens of memes. She also absolutely ravages the piano during the power ballad “Always Remember Us This Way.”

Watching Lady Gaga portray a woman unaware of her own talent growing into fame is exhilarating. Seeing such a prolific, famous artist successfully pull off playing a "nobody" is just plain fun. Montages of Jackson and Ally—hair wild, slapping a tambourine—on stage together on tour are pure cinematic dessert. Lady Gaga reportedly insisted that the music performances be shot live, and it pays off. Critics have pointed out that she has the best songs—perhaps because she co-wrote so many of them. Making you a bigger Lady Gaga fan is perhaps the film’s greatest success. (Full disclosure: I am listening to the soundtrack right now.)

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Lady Gaga in 'A Star Is Born.' Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But the pacing of the second half of the film grows increasingly erratic and joyless, careening from Ally practicing choreography or doing a photoshoot to Jackson snorting crushed pills before a performance. The interstitial relationship vignettes that pad the action feel more and more forced, as Jackson’s obsession with authenticity leads him to insult Ally after a performance on SNL—reminding her that her music is best when she’s herself, and that she is “herself” when she is with him. It’s all a bit hard to track, since he used his fame to court and elevate Ally in the first place, then begins acting petulantly and accuses her of selling out as soon as she actually hits it big.

The result is about two hours of straight anxiety punctuated by the ecstasy of seeing Lady Gaga perform live. When Ally sings at the very end, we’re supposed to feel sentimental and emotional, to see her husband’s sacrifice as some kind of nobility. Instead, I felt a mix of disappointment, relief, and wistfulness for the toll taken on a woman’s emotional health and career.

The trailer was a great movie, and the soundtrack slaps. I should have just stuck with those.

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