Review: ‘A Star is Born’ (it takes a lot to try)

If you’re swayed by tear-jerkers, you’re going to need a whole box of tissues.

Ally (Lady Gaga) is an aspiring singer who can’t get a break… until folksy singer-songwriter Jack (Bradley Cooper) wanders into a bar on drag night and hears her perform. Both distracted and inspired by her potential, he invites her backstage to one of his concerts after a night of misadventure, coaxing her out for the world to experience. Older brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) watches out for Jack, specifically his bottled demons and lack of self-care, yet even he can see that Ally is good for him. As Jack’s star continues to fade, Ally’s is on the rise, pushing both toward making hard decisions about their careers, themselves, and one another… but Fate isn’t always kind.

Based on screenplays from 1954 and 1976 versions of this story while written, directed, and co-starring Bradley Cooper (doing an amazing brother-worthy impression of co-star Sam Elliot), it still looks and feels like a throwback, like this could have taken place in the 1990s. While playing out on the world stage, the drama is far more intimate and personal, a fictional look inside the souls of big names to answer questions of how happiness remains elusive after success… or because of it. Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Lady Gaga herself; is she truly the X-factor that makes this fourth incarnation of the same story unique or even necessary?

To Cooper’s credit, nothing in this 135-minute film seems wasted. In fact, it feels abbreviated, because we’re left wanting to know more about these two people. Those familiar with earlier incarnations — specifically the Oscar-winning 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson — will note a few specific changes to Jack’s downward spiral; to Cooper’s credit, even when things are at their rockiest, the only people betrayed is themselves. While perhaps not as realistic — deranged fans, cut-up critics, social media meltdowns, political positions, and many other modern trappings of fame are conspicuously missing — the distraction-free bubble focuses the story on the key players and their emotional motivations to achieve maximum impact.

It shouldn’t be any wonder that the music is a focus with Lady Gaga at the helm, but more of a surprise is fully accepting Bradley Cooper as industry royalty, looking completely believable as an old-hat entertainer moseying out on stage… or crawling into a bottle. Countering his actor-as-musician turn, Gaga steps up her musician-turned-actress chops to silence critics, slipping comfortably into all the fears of a first-time performer instead of the seasoned professional headlining Super Bowl halftimes. The sudden appearance of Jack’s old buddies played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin is welcome if almost incidental, but Andrew Dice Clay’s turn as Papa Lorenzo is downright eerie. Sam Elliot does what Sam does, inexplicably underplaying his presence to let the principal players shine.

Complaints over specifics are myriad, including “fails the Bechdel test” and “why didn’t Ally have any girlfriends to lean on” topping the list (note: the character of Ramon played by Anthony Ramos serves in the girlfriend role just fine), and yes, Rafi Gavron’s baddie Brit producer was kind of stock and underdeveloped, but the real villain of this story is human fragility. It’s the kind of movie that generates awards buzz until something crawls out of the woodwork and snipes it at the last minute, prompting outrage over how Lady Gaga was panned or some such, but if more evidence was needed that remakes can have their own voice while the story is essentially the same, consider this Exhibit A.

A Star is Born is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, substance abuse, and sucker-punching Sam Elliot.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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