'Maestro' review: Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein drama lacks depth
Courtesy of Netflix
From a pure technical perspective, Bradley Cooper has certainly elevated his filmmaking game following “A Star is Born.” That Lady Gaga starrer and Oscar nominated film didn’t have the scope or ambition of “Maestro,” which sees Cooper write, direct, and star in a drama about prolific composer Leonard Bernstein. The mastermind behind such scores for both “On the Waterfront” and “West Side Story” has finally been given the cinematic treatment, but despite Cooper’s transformation (the makeup effects are stratospheric), there’s an element missing from “Maestro” that’s hard to replicate: the human connection. The filmmaker, who throws a lot of passion into this picture, can’t seem to grasp an interesting angle for the composer. Instead, he opts to focus primarily on Bernstein’s complicated 27-year marriage with Chilean Broadway actress Felicia Montealegre, who is played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that outshines Cooper at nearly every magnitude.
It creates a weird divide that keeps you at an arm's length and offers minimal insight into the life and career of Bernstein. I walked away knowing more about Montealegre, which, considering the pedigree Mulligan brings to the role, doesn’t derail the entire movie, but it makes you question the need to explore this avenue in the first place? The man dealt with crippling depression and has been on the record about his bisexuality, but the film handles those moments in such fleeting terms, it becomes frustrating. Throw in Cooper’s spastic and, at times, over-the-top portrayal and you’re left with a biopic with little sense of purpose. Even for as good as Cooper is, one wonders if the actor should’ve let someone else, perhaps one of his producers Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, helm the picture instead.
At least Cooper does look the part, thanks to impeccable make-up and aging effects, though his vocal cadence, a deep, raspy brogue, is more distracting than it is affecting. It’s the showiest of performances you’re likely to see all year. One that doesn’t so much strive for authenticity, but to be a good enough mimic to help push it over the finish line. We seem to forget that sometimes, less is more. Which is exactly why Mulligan deserves all the flowers coming her way playing the emotionally fraught wife who sees Lenoard, and all his flaws, for who he really is.
Cooper does make up for the tepid performance in his visual directing style as his film gracefully transitions through the decades, bouncing back and forth to Manhattan, and Bernstein’s serene country homes with a decadent polish. The first leg of the film is unspooled in mostly black and white, as Bernstein propels to stardom in the 1950s, before changing gears to a bolder color palette in the ‘60s where his family life is on the rocks, and then, in the mid ‘70s when the composer is at his lowest, everything is saturated and drained.
It’s a bummer all these elements couldn’t mesh together and harbor a more compelling narrative as “Maestro” doesn’t care about the Bernstein who wrote “Our Town” or the inspiration that led to his ascension at the New York City Philharmonic. We also learn very little about those closest to him: Sarah Silverman has a bit role playing Bernstein’s sister, meanwhile Matt Bomer and Gideon Gick play ex-lovers though they’re presence, or their impact on Bernstein, is hardly felt. Maya Hawke gets some mileage playing his daughter though its inclusion doesn’t move the needle.
The film’s central core belongs to Mulligan’s fractured Felicia, who struggles with her husband’s gay infidelities. Anyone who knows about their relationship understands it was, by no means, a straightforward endeavor, but it was grounded in love and reality. Something that occasionally comes across in the film. In the end, all the pieces are in place for Cooper to bring home a slam dunk, but he can’t quite glue it together in a manner that makes sense for this particular project. He’s a wonderful director who I hope keeps making these intimate character dramas, though let's hope the next one is more insightful.
MAESTRO is now playing in select theaters (including Detroit). It will stream on Netflix, December 20th.