6/10 A Star is Born is the kind of predictable, pretentious Oscarbate that I want to despise with every fiber of my being, but I can not. Everything about this movie tells me I should hate it, but it is too soundly made for me to truly dislike.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also writes, directs and produces) is an international country music megastar who refuses to address his alcohol dependency or his growing tinnitus. Out of booze after a show, he ducks into a drag bar, where he meets and immediately falls in love with burgeoning songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga). Maine coaxes her into going on tour with him and even brings her on stage to sing her own songs for the first time. Tensions mount as her star eventually begins to burn brighter than his own and his drinking antics intensify.
One of the biggest factors in A Star is Born’s rapturous reception is its crass, emotionally manipulative ending, which we’ll need to address in order to discuss the film fully. If you keep reading without having seen it, the film won’t have its full effect, but I’d argue that it’s not all that effective anyway.
I was primed to hate this movie mostly from the first trailer, which focuses on gender dynamics that aren’t really present in the final product. It tells some familiar, foul stories that don’t really deserve to be told again – a famous, powerful man who knows what’s best for the woman he’s infatuated with, a first-time director casting a star more than a decade his junior to pantomime tons of sex in a workplace setting where he’s the boss, a male star unable to cope with a woman stealing his spotlight.
In reality, Cooper and Gaga met in much the same way their characters do, which is bizarre given that A Star is Born is a beat-for-beat remake of an 86-year-old story. This version is dripping in metatextual irony, mostly revolving around Gaga playing a character who is her polar opposite professionally, but with whom she says she shares essentially the same insecurities.
Gaga knocks it out of the park, obviously. Though this is her first film credit that’s more than an extended cameo, it’s disingenuous to call her a newcomer after she carried an entire season of the highly cinematic American Horror Story, or after having realistically been performing for her entire flamboyant musical career. This won’t even be her first Oscar nomination – she earned a best original song nomination for her work on the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground.
Cooper also knocks it out of the park. A Star is Born is seriously impressive as a directorial and screenwriting debut, though I’m not as sold on the acting side of the equation. Maine seems more like a Sam Elliott impression than his own character, and it’s still hard to believe them as brothers – Elliott plays Maine’s older brother Bobby in the film – just because of the obvious age discrepancy.
A Star is Born feels like it has a huge conflict problem. There are several conflicts, obviously – internal tensions with Ally and Maine, conflicts between them at the beginning and low points of their relationship, conflict between Maine and his brother and conflict between just about everyone and Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron – wait, seriously?), Ally’s imperious manager who becomes the closest thing the film has to an antagonist when he’s introduced about an hour and a half in. But there’s nothing central, nothing that feels like it ties the story together from beginning to end. Maine and Ally both have solidly defined arcs, but they only become clear in hindsight.
No, A Star is Born feels like it has a conflict problem, but what it really has is a motivation problem. I don’t know what these characters want. Traditionally, tension in a movie comes from the viewer rooting for characters against opposition, but if they don’t have a clear goal, that whole system falls apart.
Maine resists addressing his alcoholism, which drives other conflicts, but it’s never clear why. He also refuses to address his hearing loss because he doesn’t feel like he plays properly wearing earplugs, but that doesn’t come up outside of its introduction and a few ringing scenes. It lifts right out of the movie.
Ally is at first reluctant to run away with this man she just met and has to get over her nerves to get out onstage, but outside of that, she encounters little resistance until Gavron is introduced.
The ham-fisted ending ties a bow on what I guess were their character’s arcs. After drunkenly humiliating Ally at the Grammies, Maine, at Gavron’s encouragement, kills himself in order to avoid relapsing and further damaging his wife’s career. Ally introduces herself as Ally Maine for the first time, and sings a love song that her husband had been writing to her before his suicide, which is literally called “I’ll never love again” and consists of her repeating the line ad infinitum as a montage of earlier scenes straight out of Twilight flashes across the screen. It’s seriously gross.
The ending puts a very clear definition on both of their paths – Maine goes from meeting Ally to putting her career ahead of his own life, in maybe the stupidest possible way, and Ally goes from a nervous wreck who can’t sing her own songs to embracing stardom in a very dark way – but it does so only in retrospect, and in a way that feels hollow.
Maine’s suicide is senseless and desperate – senseless in that, if he’s really trying to avoid damaging his wife’s career, killing himself runs a very high risk of doing exactly that, and desperate in that he’s giving up on sobriety mere days after leaving rehab. The plot point feels just as senseless and desperate on the part of the screenplay, which seemed like it was going nowhere for most of its runtime. The overt attempt at jerking tears obviously works, there are a lot of people howling as they leave A Star is Born, but it’s less because his death particularly fits the story and more because of the shock value.
What’s much more interesting is how Ally’s arc looks when cast in this light. Maine tells her several times not to lose herself, not to give up what makes her unique in her pursuit of her stardom, but she turns into a bit of a fame monster as the movie goes on. After initially not wanting to change her look, she’s dyed her hair a ghastly shade of orange and started to favor elaborate aquamarine outfits. She’s also adopted backup dancers, all at Gavron’s insistence.
Her music also shifts. Her introductory ballad, “Shallows” – “In all the good times/I find myself longing for change/And in the bad times, I fear myself” – is contemplative and well-written, but her chart topping solo single, “Why did you do that” – “Why did you walk past me with an ass like that” – is, ehrm, not.
Her return performance after her husband’s suicide could be read as the embrace of fame at any cost, the final acknowledgement that nothing remains sacred to this character. It’s much more likely that this scene was intended as a weepy tribute to a movie that hasn’t even ended yet, but that’s much less interesting.
It’s tough to really fault A Star is Born. It’s an impressive piece of work for a rookie director, and a lot of what’s wrong with it is categorical – the film doesn’t do a particularly bad job, it’s just this type of job shouldn’t exist. There shouldn’t be movies designed to tick arbitrary boxes that have been proven to win awards consistently. Suicide shouldn’t be used for shock value to distract from an otherwise vapid story. But A Star is Born is probably one of the better movies that will do so this season.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.