Review: Bradley Cooper goes for gold in ‘Maestro’ with directorial brilliance, but an incomplete biopic

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Maestro' (Part 1)

Bradley Cooper has come a long way from “Wedding Crashers” (2005) and “The Hangover” (2009), earning acclaim for “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013) and “American Sniper” (2014) before launching his own impressive directorial career with Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born” (2018).

Now, he goes for the gold with his new Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro,” which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Lion. The Oscar contender is now playing in select theaters in our area, including the Landmark E Street Cinema in D.C., the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the Angelika Film Center at Mosaic in Fairfax, Virginia, before streaming on Netflix on Dec. 20.

“Maestro” is a visionary force of a film, no doubt, with some of the most daring directorial choices this year, but for all of its inventive flourishes, the film loses sight of sharing the story of how Bernstein’s music was created, instead focusing on his romantic relationships in an unjust society with occasional conductor interludes. It’s good to take risks, and not every biopic needs to move chronologically, but this one misses the forest for the trees.

It’s not for a lack of effort. Cooper dives headfirst into the role, waving his conductor wand with wild motions and a giddy smile. He’s most impressive as the elder Bernstein, wearing a red sweater and thick glasses, completely transforming his appearance. Much has been made of Cooper asking the Bernstein estate’s permission to wear a prosthetic nose in the hopes that one non-Jewish actor might be forgivable as a filmmaker’s passion project.

It becomes a bridge too far when both leads are whitewashed. For Bernstein’s Jewish-Latina wife Felicia Montealegre, Cooper casts British star Carey Mulligan, the great actress of “An Education” (2009), “Drive” (2011), “Mudbound” (2017), “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and “She Said” (2022). Her chemistry with Cooper shines playing guessing games in the park, but her Anglo look sticks out beside Jewish co-star Sarah Silverman.

It’s a flaw unfortunately baked into the cake in a film that arrests us with its bravura opening as Bernstein gets his big break, receiving a phone call asking to fill in for a sick conductor. Rising from the dark, he flings open the window shade as the camera follows him down a hallway, swooping through the auditorium toward the stage, then rising back up to the balcony (granted, it looks digitally achieved, not with an actual crane shot).

This stark black-and-white sequence is imaginative like Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) but with the vibe of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” (2014). Throughout the film, ingenious scene transitions prove that Cooper belongs in an elite class of directors. In fact, when the Georgetown alum visited D.C. to screen “A Star is Born” (2018), I asked him about the mise-en-scène of a neon billboard noose foreshadowing the tragic ending.

While “Maestro” shows Cooper’s creativity, I wish we could have seen Bernstein’s own creative juices flowing. We never see his inspiration for scoring “On the Waterfront” (1954) or “West Side Story” (1961). They’re just the soundtrack to his personal life. The closest we get is a dream ballet of dancing sailors from his 1944 Broadway show “On the Town,” which became a 1949 movie musical with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

Screenwriter Josh Singer, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” (2015), offered better work-life balance between Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in the Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” (2018). I don’t mind that “Maestro” focuses on Bernstein’s personal life more than his art, but a 50/50 split would have felt more fulfilling. The result is more like 80/20, exploring how it was hard to be bisexual in the 20th century, even with an open-minded wife.

Through it all, a thematic throughline is developing in Cooper’s work where we clearly see his thoughts on fame. Stardom is something that chews you up and spits you out, leaving you as an alcoholic drunk hanging yourself in “A Star is Born” or a depressed widower alone at the end of life questioning whether to jump in a lake in “Maestro.”

Audiences will walk out pondering such existentialism, which Cooper is up front about in the opening quote: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” It’s a great label if you want to give yourself a pass in the pursuit of pure artistic expression, but Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” achieved artistic gold without ignoring the common viewer.

Bradley, you may have class, but you could’ve been a contender.

3 stars

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Maestro' (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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