A Star is Born: This? Really?

by Simon Williams on October 9, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Down]

Sometimes I feel I make this job harder than it should be.

Hi, my name is Simon Williams and I haven’t written a normal review for a film on this site in quite a while. Maybe that’s because of my uncomfortability with the format, finding the idea of “objective review” to be nothing more than a method of granting already massively wealthy people free advertising for projects that will already be successful. Maybe it’s my own pretentions, wanting to show off my wit and breadth of knowledge in a variety of fields and using criticism as a platform to do so. Maybe it’s just cause I’m lazy and find excuses to not finish these things. Maybe it’s all of those things.

A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name which nobody reading this has probably seen. It is written, directed, produced by and starring Bradley Cooper about a man with a messiah complex giving himself a self-aggrandizing end in order to solidify his importance above all those around him and win himself an Oscar I mean give himself sex scenes with one of the most beautiful women on the planet I’m sorry I mean prove he knows how music should work better than most people I’M SORRY I MEAN give a chance to an underprivileged younger singer.

It also stars Lady Gaga as the titular star who is born, who is a fantastic character for the first 40 minutes when she’s allowed to have her own arc and personality. It is also the current frontrunner and big name in the still nascent Oscar race because of course it is. The film is getting very good reviews from most critics and is being received well by audiences currently as, of course, I am getting this review out late. I, also, did not like it very much.

A Star is Born is also a film that I have thought about every day for hours at a time, nagging at me as I try to sleep, boring itself deeper into my head trying to figure out why it bothers me so much, causing me to rewrite this review at least a dozen times and I JUST CAN’T DO IT. I write this in a new apartment, on a desk that is not mine, in the wake of the confirmation of one Brett Kavanaugh to the highest court in the land, trying desperately to condense a myriad of half-thoughts into something that is actually readable and I’m having a great amount of trouble focusing on the film itself as I keep bringing all of this into the article wanting to talk about toxic masculinity and metatext about Gaga’s career and the failures of Hollywood to depict mental health and a million other things that I’m awkwardly ham-fisting into my approach to the film, despite the fact the movie is just a simple melodrama that isn’t really interested in any of that.

Yes, dear reader. This article is largely just a method of me admitting that I’m taking an L here. A Star is Born is a simple, straightforward bit of benign pablum that I am spending way too much time thinking about. Oscar fans will love it. I did not. But why? Why am I spending so much time obsessing on this stupid little movie?

A large part of this may be sheer confusion. After a few years of the big mid-year Oscar contenders being films as risky and fascinating as Birdman, Moonlight and Carol, A Star is Born coming in feeling like it could’ve come out in 1996 without changing a beat and being as dull and rote an exercise as it seems just to be received as a modern classic is very odd. There were applause and open weeping in my theater at the end of this and I do not get it. BUT Oscar bait is Oscar bait, always has been, and it normally doesn’t affect me this deeply.

Part of that could be attributed to my expectations versus the rest of the critical community’s, however. There was much banter about “how is Gaga going to ACT now” throughout the theater and myself, being young enough to actually be on the ground floor for her entire career and keep an eye on it throughout, was not to be surprised and blown away by the fact she can be a normal human. Her entire last album was her playing a Joni Mitchell-esque folk rocker and she’s had several roles before this, all of which she’s done well with. The fact she can act isn’t surprising. In fact, very little of this surprises me.

“Bradley Cooper has a decent sense of cinematic language.” Well no he doesn’t, but he knows how to shoot a pretty scene and knows how to work with actors. Again, not surprising given the way actors steal from directors they’ve worked with and after his close collaborations with Clint Eastwood, James Gunn, David O. Russell and Derek Cianfrance, it’d actually be shocking if he didn’t pick some stuff up. I was expecting something solid and I mostly got that. Mostly. We’ll get there.

Maybe it’s everything going on outside of the film. Life as a whole (and my life in particular) has been extraordinarily dramatic and messy in recent weeks. I am working multiple jobs, have recently moved, and the country is steadily falling into fascist demagoguery. There was a version of this article where I attempted to tie in the hyper-masculine, revisionist rock star of Jackson Maine (Cooper’s character) and his descent into addiction as an offshoot of the very toxic brand of masculinity pervading certain brands of our culture recently, largely via our current political regime, wherein the worst attributes of men’s identities are vilified and forgiven using only the most cursory efforts at empathy. This is the type of masculinity that Bojack Horseman (the best show on TV) works very hard at forcing us to see the limits of and force us to both understand AND condemn. Maine’s drug abuse, self-defeating nihilism and old-school pontificating about “real” music comes off less as tragic flaws of the character and rather the film’s ways of getting us to empathize with the man. We are supposed to love him BECAUSE of his telling people off for fakeness, and we are meant to be devastated at the world leaving him behind. This was going to be the basis of a large, topic-hopping piece that just went in on the film but honestly I doubt that it’s strong enough a foundation to build this on. The film is high melodrama, and the fact the lead has mild similarities to Brett Kavanaugh is less an issue of the film and more me being unable to shake my baggage.

This is an issue when the film makes this its only focus. Gaga’s Ally gets completely sidelined to plot device for much of the film’s second and third acts. The use of Gaga as upcoming pop star was savvy meta-casting, but the type of pop star she becomes clashes hard with Gaga’s public persona thus killing the meta-joke. Ally is entirely a product of studio interference, and despite some talk of her being a more “real” icon and more of a singer-songwriter, we never see that and those dialogue snippets do little more than to feel jarring with the bland, boring Robyn riff the film ends up turning her into. This choice also nails the idea that Mayne is in the right for thinking this teenie-bopper pop stuff isn’t worth anyone’s time and doesn’t help the image of the film as an ego-masculine diatribe about how sad it is that masculinity itself is under attack.

BUT again, I’m probably going for a stretch here.

The vast majority of the film’s missteps are honestly comparatively minor to how I took them. I’m a fan of quite a few contemporary pop stars and know how much more a varied, interesting field the genre is right now, so the film’s lack of interest in the genre gets me more than it would others. I also find films about artists where we never get a full idea of what kind of art they make very frustrating, so the film using the fact they are musicians as nothing more than a stage for the melodrama gets me more. Then of course there is the film’s approach to mental health, addiction, and suicide. Anyone who has read my recent work knows that I’m a hard mark there.

[SPOILER ALERT]

The film doesn’t earn its suicide. Not at all. Nor does, really, any edition of A Star is Born but in most other versions I can ignore it because of the tone of classical Hollywood melodrama. It’s not about real struggles with mental health, it’s about the drama of losing someone. Here the far grittier, more realistic tone the film struggles so hard for makes that character’s end feel awkward, blunt and forced. It made me more than a little angry. BUT AGAIN this is not really the film’s problem: it’s mine. I’m a hard mark for things like this.

A Star is Born, at the end of the day, is a fairly modest, small film that doesn’t have great aspirations on its mind. It wants to win some Oscars, but it’s not trying to tackle any major subjects or be a love story for the ages. It’s just trying to be a straightforward and genuine little movie and it’s not great at that. It will work for people who are fine just rolling with the melodrama, and honestly that’s fine. It’s fine. I’m fine. This is fine. My many, many problems are all on me and I get it.

This said, people are treating this film as a big deal. The Oscar buzz is insane and the box office numbers are already good. Many critics are calling it a masterpiece. And, just, what?

This? THIS!?! This small, weird, not particularly good made-for-tv quality-snuck-into-theaters remake? This is the banner of modern dramatic filmmaking? This is what everyone is waiting on the edge of their seats for me to write about? THIS is the biggest critical darling of the year?

I don’t know.

Maybe I’m just too cynical.

But seriously, this?

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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