With MAESTRO hitting theaters this week this is a revised version of my NYFF review. Two months on I'm even less in love with the film.
Maestro disappointed me.
It is Bradley Cooper’s film of the life of Leonard Bernstein that resulted from a project that began with producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg attempting to sit in the director’s chair. For whatever reason both backed off the film and star Bradley Cooper stepped in. The film he made is at best a hit or miss affair.
Not a typical biography, the film doesn’t chart the high points of Bernstein’s life, instead it charts the course of the conductor’s relationship with his wife Felicia played by Carrie Mulligan and his infidelities with the boys he met along the way. The film is trying to say how important Felicia was to Lenny despite, at least according to this film, largely ignoring her later in their relationship.
While the film has moments, largely it’s all over the place. The problem is that there is no effort to tell us when anything is happening. We have to guess based on the changes in clothes and how the characters age. We are not given any sense of what important event is happening or when it is happening. Why are the few concerts we see important? On a larger scale why are we seeing any of these moments? We don’t know. Yes, it’s the arc of the relationship but it doesn’t always mean anything because we have no context- especially as to why and how they fit into the relationship.
This didn’t bother the people I spoke with who could quote the life of Bernstein chapter and verse, but for many of the rest of us, we felt lost. And while this is set up to be the story of his relationship with his wife, there is a certain point, as the film switches from black and white to color, where the film simply stops even showing that, it’s just Bernstein playing with the boys and his wife fuming. The result is the film, whose final third should be crushing, has no emotional punch.
The performances are… interesting. The “interestingness of the performances highlights the fact that despite Cooper’s insistence the film is about how important Felicia was to her husband, we simply are never shown the how or why. Yes, she said somethings early in the relationship, but later Coooper reduces her to simply sniping repeatedly not to get caught screwing one of his conquests. Carey Mulligan is amazing in the first half of the film, we see how Bernstein is madly in love with her and we see how she guides him to greater and greater things. Mulligan is an absolute rock and it’s an award worthy performance… until the relationship sours and she is given little to do. Mulligan just glares and looks hurt. She says little and mostly what she does is of little consequence other than look upset. She really says little in the later part of the film other than one speech about being lost that is delivered as if she were doing a piece from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mostly she is simply reduced to standing and staring disapprovingly. We lose any sense of her as a person, or even a screen presence so the sequences of her dealing with cancer have little weight.
While there are times when Bradley Cooper is physically Bernstein, mostly he plays it all like a jokey burlesque. I was giggling through most of it. Only when he is conducting does he truly seems to be inhabiting the man, the rest of the time he feels like a sketch comedy version of the man. Indeed even Bernstein’s chain-smoking is portrayed her so over the top as to be from a comedy (it never seems natural). There is only a fleeting sense of the man beyond the one that wants to bed all the cute guys. The sense of wonder and love for his wife disappears by the half way point. He simply ignores her or overshadows her as if she were a chair. It’s something that makes the pained pillow scream less affecting then it should be, since mostly we don’t see his love for his wife in any of the later sequences outside of the bookend TV interview. It doesn’t help that Cooper the director, pushes everyone and everything off the stage while he is on screen. While Bernstein was an egotist he seems unmatched by Cooper’s “look at me aren’t I great” approach to the role. To put it quite simply most of the film is Cooper chewing the scenery to make us notice him as opposed to seeing the subject of the film. It’s a choice that makes the film not have any emotional resonances because after a certain point there are no real people on stage other than a goofy Cooper who has surrounded himself with non-characters holding mirrors up to reflect his glory.
This was sooooo disappointing. I have always been a huge fan of Bernstein since I grew up watching him on TV and seeing this film just depressed me.
While not bad, it only soars in a few fleeting moments, the moments when Bradley Cooper stops showing us how great he thinks Bradley Cooper is in an effort to win an Oscar and instead lets us finally, and fleetingly, see Bernstein's humanity and soul.
Wait for Netflix.