By: Kevin Jordan
Immediately after watching A Star is Born, I felt satisfied. For the past two months, I have been sitting through movies that range from tolerable to ghastly. Recently, I was asked if I had seen any good movies lately, and my brain took a nap. Christopher Robin was pretty good, but that was two months ago and was (obviously) forgettable. Shit movies like The Meg and The Predator made me yearn for something, anything, that did not make me want to perform a self-lobotomy to try to forget such awful films. Enter a remake, of a remake, of a remake, of the 1937 original A Star is Born.
Ordinarily, a film that is the fourth iteration of itself deserves to be summarily ignored and dismissed on principle, yet each iteration proves itself worthy. The original won an Oscar and was nominated for seven. The 1954 remake was nominated for six Oscars. The 1976 version was nominated for four Oscars and won one. I may need to amend my remake rules (especially the one about winning Oscars), but that is for another time. The latest incarnation of A Star is Born will almost assuredly follow in its predecessor’s nomination footsteps.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous musician with a bit of drinking problem. After completing a show and drinking every last drop of alcohol in his limo, he directs his driver to stop at a random bar because he has a bit of a drinking problem. After staggering up to the bar and being recognized by Ramon (Anthony Ramos), Ramon insists that Jackson listen to the next singing act. Enter Ally (Lady Gaga), belting out a French song and blowing Jackson’s blitzed mind. Jackson is instantly enamored with Ally’s talent and talks her into hanging out with him for the rest of the night. Eventually, they end up in a grocery store parking lot where Ally sings an original song she thought up on the spot and Jackson tells her she is a songwriter. This is your classic meet-cute where girl sings French song and alcoholic famous guy invites girl to a parking lot at three in the morning. I promise it works though.
Jackson invites her to his next show and eventually convinces her to join him on stage to sing the parking lot song. This is the start of her career and we get to follow along as she encounters exactly no difficulties or speed bumps to become the star musician she always wanted to be. There is a catch though. Jackson has a bit of a drinking problem. As she is rising to the top, he is falling to the floor, in some cases, quite literally. Since they are dating and in love, she has to deal with him being a barely functioning drunk who is very good at saying the right things to her. That kind of counts as difficulty, but she deals with it the same way Jackson’s brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), dealt with it for decades. By excusing it, enabling it, making empty threats, and otherwise not actually doing anything about it.
Eventually, this leads to a climax that ranks among one of the most awkward and difficult-to-watch scenes featuring an alcoholic this side of a Supreme Court nominee Senate hearing. At this point, she finally deals with him, we get a third-act reckoning, and the film ends with a scene that is fairly predictable if you were paying attention. Credit goes to this film for bringing a certain element back around, but it turns out it was just about the only thing they tied up at the end.
Like I said, I was satisfied at the conclusion of the film. The film has great acting from Gaga and Cooper and an excellent soundtrack featuring some songs that I guarantee you will be humming on your drive home from the theater. Since the soundtrack was not available the day I screened the film, I spent the car ride home discussing the shortcomings of the writing with my wife. This is a good time to remind you that my wife has a film degree and so much smarter than me about movies.
One weakness in the writing is that the first half of the film is extremely well-done and filled with all kinds of setups, while the second half is a bit of a slog where none of those setups are brought back to bare. Many a line is spent discussing how Ally’s looks, particularly her nose, are not visually conducive to being a famous rock star. Even her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) notes that if she was not quite so ugly, people would notice her talent (and he says it in way that is dickish to her instead of defensive of her). After weeks of touring with Jackson, she scores a deal with a manager and I thought for sure he was going to recommend she get a nose job. Instead, he recommends she get blond hair. Another example of missed opportunity is Ally’s defiance. Early in the film, she punches a cop, yet, for the rest of the movie, no further cops (or anyone) were harmed in the making of this film and she acquiesces to pretty much anything and everything (including aforementioned hair color change) with zero argument. Example number three is a line from Jackson very early in their relationship where she asks if he has been drinking and he says no, that he has not even thought about drinking. Of course, he has a bit of a drinking problem so he might have still been really drunk when he said that because he is drunk again very soon thereafter.
The other big weakness is in the characters themselves. For Jackson, we are never really sure why he drinks so much. Is it because of his abusive father? His tinnitus? Being a rock star in general? After a particularly nasty drunken confrontation, Ally tells him she will not give him another chance and he quits the booze for a little while. When he starts drinking again, it is not really clear why. On several occasions, he tells her (and other people) that the only thing that matters in music is having something to say. As long as she stays true to herself and remembers that advice, she will succeed. Yet, when it appears that she has forgotten that advice (by changing her hair, performing with back-up dancers, singing empty songs), he never confronts her about it. So, we are left back at the beginning of this paragraph. Is the tinnitus getting worse? Does he hate the orange hair? Is he having cold-turkey induced nightmares of his dad singing with backup dancers who all have the Sam Elliott’s mustache? We need answers, dammit.
For Ally, we never get to see her character really grow or traverse any real story arc. She seems to really dislike her father, yet everything is cool as soon as she hits the stage. She seems to be defiant and wanting to succeed on her own terms, yet caves in to her manager’s demands at the drop of a hat. She threatens to leave Jackson for good if he ever ends up super-duper drunk again, then marries him after he ends up passed out in a friend’s yard. Halfway through the drive home, it occurred to me that Ally is arguably not the main character of this film, but that Jackson is. So the film’s title is a bit of stretch even though it and the trailers clearly point to Ally as the main character.
I was serious when I implied this movie was going to garner some Oscar nominations. The acting, music, and singing are more than good enough to earn some awards. The first fifty minutes alone are worth it. Just remember not ride home with any film students.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back for leaving all those strings untied.