The Shallows

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The full disclosure first: it is no-big-secret that Bradley Cooper’s 2018 directorial debut A Star Is Born happens to be the fourth version of that very same storyline told by that name, arguably the fifth version of that storyline told overall depending on how closely you think the 1932 George Cukor film What Price Hollywood?, which predates them all, hews closely to them*. I happened to see Cooper’s film after a back-to-back-to-back-to-back refresh of all four previous films and it may very well be the case that I might have been burnt out from that story by the time I reached Cooper’s telling. I highly doubt that and don’t see myself being in the mood to rewatch it and test that theory anytime soon: it might just as well be the case that I was simply unimpressed with a fairly average piece of artist’s struggle Oscarbait. Plus, when it comes to watching it shortly after enduring the godawful 1976 Barbra Streisand vanity piece, Cooper’s film has all the juxtapositional advantages it could possibly have and ends up looking rosy.

In fact, the subject matter of Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters‘ screenplay apparently tries to make right the new direction Frank Pierson‘s film tried to take: as opposed to the first three films’ focus on movie stars, the ’76 and ’18 versions of A Star Is Born focus on musicians now and both of them seem to choose country as the genre of choice. The beats are otherwise uniform all throughout and Cooper’s character, burnt-out substance abuser Jackson Maine, has regained the surname of all the previous iterations outside of the ’76 version. Maine randomly discovers the remarkable musical talent of Ally (Lady Gaga) and coaxes her into becoming a viral phenomenon after he arranges an impromptu duet performance of a song she wrote during one of his concerts. The two become very quickly enamored with each other while Ally’s star begins rising, Jackson is being shut out as a liability and it’s causing him to relapse into his vices in a manner poisonous towards himself and potentially Ally’s career.

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There’s another toxic side to Cooper‘s story that I feel might not be as intended but the film slips towards regardless: Ally’s rising fame lands her with a more pop-oriented image that Jackson transparently disapproves of, an attitude the movie doesn’t have as much objection to so much as the cruel fashion that he expresses it, particularly when he is at his drunkest. That this is absent from the previous films (in which the male lead is unconditionally supportive of what direction the female lead wishes to go) is, I think, no accident.

But enough of comparing Cooper’s film to its predecessors, for “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die”, as one of Maine’s songs (written by Jason Isbell, the soundtrack has a general revolving door of writers with Gaga being the major constant and the results being mostly mixed with “Maybe It’s Time” and the much-marketed “Shallow” being the best) go. What about A Star Is Re-re-reBorn as a film unto itself?

Well, for one thing, it looks almost exactly like the sort of film I imagine Clint Eastwood would have made (Cooper having worked with him on American Sniper and The Mule) with its classically worn look to itself whether against the blinding lights of the concert stage, the busy domesticity of Ally’s home (inhabited by characters that Woody Allen would have repeated his “standing out here with the cast of The Godfather” line towards headed by a sleepily against-type Andrew Dice Clay), the sterile white of a grocery store in the middle of the night. There’s one major exception to Cooper’s Eastwood influence: an early scene in a gay bar during a drag show, where the color red completely washes over the film but refusing to have sharply defined lines so as not to lose its faux-verite sense and one of the better scenes of the film for this fact. In general, there is very little about Cooper and his work with cinematographer Matthew Libatique that implies they don’t know their way towards giving a setting a lived-in feel but an overreliance towards the crutch of close-ups as the one major way to communicate our characters’ thoughts, though there is one moment where a close-up, on top of the one great cut by otherwise sluggish Jay Cassidy, is juxtaposed to another with a usage of focus that amplifies the spaced-out distance Maine is feeling towards Ally’s career trajectory. It sucks that such a moment is utilized in that objectionable manner, but it’s great to see the close-up used at least once in the movie to tell us something that one shot of an actor’s face couldn’t.

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And to be sure, the lead actors do a mighty fine job among them as well in conjuring a chemistry between themselves that sells a sincerity to their co-dependent relationship, even despite all the knowingly toxic and antagonistic elements. I wouldn’t call either performance great acting as individual elements (Gaga herself doesn’t have much of a path when she takes scenes emotionally from 0 to 100 and Cooper’s attempts at wounded masculine emotion is wildly overshadowed by Sam Elliot’s best work as Jackson’s older brother Bobby, making an otherwise fine performance look like cheap mimicry and having “Then why did you steal my voice?” as a line does not help). Perhaps another thing that Cooper took as a director from his previous collaborators was David O. Russell’s trust in actors to create their own rhythm and let the film be crafted around them, but it pays off enough to make A Star Is Born extremely interesting in the moments up until a boisterous early climax as Ally performs “Shallows” to a crowd with Jackson for the first time and at least maintain watchability up until the end.

Beyond that, the truth is the movie just wasn’t interesting to me. It doesn’t help that I happen to think Ally is a more interesting presence that Jackson and the movie seems to totally disagree with that (as it would when Cooper is star AND director). It maybe helps less that I’ve seen it all before done better and anything that this film tries to try anew just doesn’t compel me as melodrama. It certainly helps the least that the last half of the film is filled with bet-hedging towards its judgments with Ally’s musical style (including songs that I’d swear were deliberately written to sound bad if one of the writers didn’t deny this) and the amount of random strands that are picked up and dropped often (like Dave Chappelle’s character or Maine’s hearing issues). If it weren’t for the certainty of this movie’s presence in the awards race, I’d have no trouble forgetting about it. But it’s hard to deny that it shows promise for Cooper and Gaga in their respective newfound roles as filmmaker and movie star. This just ain’t it yet.

*It is this writer’s opinion that is very close.

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