Maestro (2023)

Feel the Bern

Maestro is an excellent piece of biopic pageantry, which I very much mean as a backhanded compliment. It’s a film assembled like a Lexus, pleasing to look at and comfy to get into and a marvel of machinery. It also has about as much personality as a Lexus. Maestro has no insight into Leonard Bernstein, no profound truths about the human condition to reveal. But, hey, Bradley Cooper puts on some makeup and does a oner conducting Mahler, so let’s toss it some Oscars. (I am trying so hard to remove the word “middlebrow” from my vocabulary, but Maestro is making it tough.)

The story can basically be broken into two threads. The first is that Leonard Bernstein is gay, but married to a woman. Can you even imagine it? It’s okay if you can’t, because the movie will rub your face in it at surface level, over and over, for two hours. The only variation is whether he’s in a sad mood or a mean mood.

The second story that this movie tells is that Leonard Bernstein had a dead wife. In the opening segment — for my money, easily the best and liveliest part of the film, although maybe that’s just because it hadn’t yet worn out its welcome — we witness Bernstein meet and fall in love with Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). She is a kind and understanding person, even though it’s sometimes hard on her that Leonard Bernstein is attracted to men. She gets cancer with about 20 minutes left in the movie, so I hope you are ready for an excruciating progression of her looking more and more sickly until we get a zoomed out, sound-lowered shot of Bradley Cooper crying.

Cooper gives one of those performances that absolutely begs for awards. It is transformed and high-effort and desperately mannered. His transatlantic accent is exhaustingly affected. I can’t call it a bad performance by any stretch. Cooper is talented and he’s working his butt off! But like Jamie Foxx in Ray, there is no space for recognizably human life to peek through; it demands you bow before it. I am impressed but not engaged.

Mulligan is so much better it’s mind-boggling. This film was ostensibly designed to get Cooper an Oscar, and yet Mulligan is the big winner. She navigates Montealegre Bernstein’s deeply performative life with disarming ease. There’s always a lovely twinkle in her eye such that you can believe her charming every audience and also doubt that she’s putting her real emotions on display. Give her the Oscar nomination, Academy.

Cooper comes off much better as a technically sound director than in any of his other roles. It’s not hard to watch some of these scenes and imagine a genuinely excellent film with a much richer screenplay, a vision of telling an actual story rather than a golden statuette in his eyes. (I mean, the first half of A Star Is Born is evidence enough.) I go back, again, to the opening half hour, which captures the busy chaos of the New York art scene at the fingertips of a rising star, performance blurring with socialization such that nothing is fully authentic.

Matthew Libatique offers some brilliant, absolutely sterling cinematography to the film, elevating it and suggesting a more coherent narrative through-line than the movie actually offers. For no reason except the passage of time and to show off, the film switches visual styles multiple times over the course of the film. The first act is a gorgeous black-and-white that shifts to a slightly sour middle act when marital troubles strike, and finally to an amber-toned finale when we’re all sad about the wife dying.

Given how cynical portions of this review are, you may be shocked to see the almost-positive rating below. Maestro is a film I resent more than I actually dislike. I did not mind sitting through it. Like a new Lexus cruising down a highway, it does its job. But good God, if you’re going to put in so much good work, why not choose something other than shameless awards bait?

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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