A Star Is Born is a perfectly acceptable harvesting of previously tilled territory, one that highlights Bradley Cooper’s impressive dramatic range and Lady Gaga's dynamic vocals without bringing anything particularly exciting or memorable to the table, save one pop song that will undoubtedly go down as a "banger" that "slaps."
I know this is supposed to be Lady Gaga's show—her Ally is the star being born, after all; she goes from doing weeknight sets singing cover songs in drag bars to doing musical duties on SNL after aging southern rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers her, pulls her onstage in front of his adoring fans, and sets her on the path to stardom—and she definitely has her moments, most of them when she's singing. Lady Gaga is a born performer; she just looks right pouring her heart out on stage, and she has the vocal chops to back it up.
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But in the more mundane scenes, during the day-to-day moments when Ally's hanging out with Jackson and they're learning to live with and love one another, Cooper blows her away. Great acting exists in the eyes, in the little movements they make and the twitches they undergo when something emotionally compelling is taking place. Gaga's eyes are all-too-often static, wide open. Cooper's are constantly working, expressing the turbulence within as Jackson struggles with substance abuse problems, tries to find balance with his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), and looks on with disgust while Ally becomes just another pop star sellout giving up her chance to say something real, something that matters.
Indeed, the best, subtlest, most realistic moment of true love in the film involves Bobby and Jackson, not Jackson and Ally. We've seen that the pair have a tumultuous relationship—Bobby, decades older, had to raise the younger boy since their dad was an abusive alcoholic—and they've already had one fist fight. But we've also seen Bobby put Jackson in bed when he's falling down drunk, and Bobby threaten to quit as Jackson's manager when he refuses to wear a device to protect his hearing onstage.
The moment comes when Bobby is driving Jackson back from a stint in rehab. The two make awkward chit chat about how things are going, the conversation eventually turning to Jackson's need to apologize for the ways he has wronged Bobby. (Step nine: making amends.) Cooper plays the moment in an almost-physically painful hangdog sort of way, struggling to get his feelings into words and out of his mouth before his body and his brain shut down entirely. Elliott, meanwhile, absorbs Cooper's declaration of admiration, throws the truck in reverse, and backs away as quickly as possible. We see his reaction when he turns around to back out—his eyes burning red, a little twitch of the nose and the mouth showing how close he is to losing it—the director capturing all of this human drama from a camera placed perfectly right behind the driver's seat.
The director, of course, is Bradley Cooper, and one gets the sense that Cooper is going to pull off a Clint Eastwood-style feat at the Oscars next year, nabbing nominations for acting and directing and producing. He'll deserve it: Cooper's eye captures the huge moments—performing onstage in front of thousands, the crowd's roar hitting jet-engine levels as a singer sets foot in front of his adoring masses—and the small ones, discussed already.
A Star Is Born is the perfect blend of heart and schmaltz, retelling a timeless tale about love and loss and triumph and heartbreak to the accompaniment of pretty solid pop tunes (which, again, Gaga really nails). It could have transcended "good" and nosed over near "great" if it had been more focused on the relationship between Jackson and Bobby than the rather blasé love of Jackson and Ally.