Tue, May 28, 2024

Maestro should be about Leonard Bernstein

Social Media was all a-buzz when the first few production stills were released for Maestro, the new Bradley Cooper-directed-written-starring vehicle regarding the legendary American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein. The talk was not positive, for instead of gasping at Cooper’s inhabitance of Bernstein’s skin, all anyone could dish on was the large prosthetic nose included in Cooper’s makeup. The small controversy led to the Anti-Defamation League giving clearance to the piece. Bernstein, of course, was Jewish, and the emphasized snout brought echoes to the minds of some viewers of antisemitic stereotypes in art.

Little did anyone suspect that Cooper’s fake nose would go on to be one of the only bright spots in an otherwise lifeless, ineffective, and pointless movie.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most celebrated and acclaimed composers of the 20th century.

Maestro claims to cover the life and career of Bernstein, which it sort of does in the first half-hour before becoming a shabby student film. It starts out by introducing the world to the composer and his wife, Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan). In the film, Cooper plays Bernstein, who begins his career as a conductor on television and songwriter in theatre, then conducts and teaches across the country. Along the way, his marriage crumbles as his penchant for younger men is barely hidden. Bernstein is shown as one of the original free spirits, long before the hippies. Reckoning, in his middle age years, by his wife’s refusal to associate with him, he declares he still wishes to be a part of Felicia and his children’s life and leaves the boy toys at the doorstep. This proves poignant when Felicia suffers from breast cancer, and he vows not to leave her side.

The amount of time it took to read that synopsis on paper is about the same amount of time within two hours that any human relationship is explored in the film. There is little meaningful self-reflection, one must first have a character in order to analyze it. Likewise, the audience learns and sympathizes very little with Felicia, who is written for stoic reactions from Mulligan and nothing more. There are no lessons about Bernstein’s craft, process, nor depth besides conventional boisterous conduction and the occasional line of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most importantly, there is no discernable plot in the movie.

In short, Maestro is a film about nothing, featuring Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.

Movies like this are most infuriating, with terms like “Oscar bait” and “vanity project” practically tailor-made for this sort of project. It is, indeed, a sizeable act of selfishness on Cooper’s part to shine in an unconventional role without any perceptible regard to the legacy or integrity of the subject matter. Yet, the aforementioned terms don’t even feel applicable to this mess of a film; it’s as if this piece was done at the pinnacle of one man’s excruciating boredom. This is Cooper’s version of playing “I Spy” on a 10-hour car ride through an open field. Something, anything to pass as entertainment.

While story-wise the film lacks in delivering a plot nor a coherent central theme, the tonal shifts are often vivid. The first half-hour swings from noir to Citizen Kane-like hefty drama, then pivots to an attempt at ‘70’s-era visceral drama.

As previously stated, there is no character to these characters. Bernstein’s bisexuality is written as a flaw, while his artistry is often shown separate from his personal life. Felicia is conducted cluelessly, neither fully understanding of nor entirely detached from her husband yet conceding to his every move.

As for his acting, Cooper’s embodiment of the subject would in any other context be considered the greatest performance of the decade, but with such meandering dribble in this script, we are numbed to any power that the experience of watching such a fine actor in this role could possibly elicit. It’s the kind of mind-numbing that parents used to worry about with their kids being exposed to violent video games and becoming desensitized to the devastation onscreen.

There are no other real standout performances, as Mulligan, also a fine actress, is reduced to reciting cold words in a wig over Chesterfields. Sarah Silverman makes an unremarkable appearance as Bernstein’s sister Shirley, as does Matt Bomer in his role as clarinetist David Oppenheim: Leonard’s first homosexual love, who disappears without a trace after the first act.

What saves the movie is Bernstein’s music. Thank God, there’s a lot of it. It is the one trace of the musical genius’s spirit interjected for a few fleeting moments of actual wonder. For Bernstein aficionados or those, like yours truly, who are simply privy to at least some of the man’s work, it comes and goes like a Lionel train under a Christmas tree.

Such childish similes are not the most diminishing nor insulting to Bernstein in terms of the material within this review, as Cooper has that covered. It is also not the worst that could be said about Cooper’s product, which will remain unwritten (I’d like to have a career).

It’s impossible to suggest that Bernstein in any playlist would be a skip, but Maestro is one of the rare films that insult through its ignorance and arrogance to such a degree, it’s perhaps best left unwatched.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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  1. I totally disagree with the young man who wrote this critique. This film was artistically, written, and filmed. Hopefully, many people will see this film and remember the brilliance of his musical genius.

  2. it took me 5 tries at trying to watch it. cooper was over acted so unashamedly. It was embarrassing. And yes no plot I kept waiting for the movie to start

  3. Sounds like someone’s jealous they’ve never been able to make a thing.

    For a critic you’re pretty oblivious to the history of filmmaking.

    I’ll gave your article about as much chance as you gave this movie going in: TLDR

  4. As Bernstein/Cooper noted “jealousy” defines many critics. I don’t recognize the planet this reviewer writes from nor the movie he thinks he saw. Yes, he should worry about his career.

  5. The first moment I saw that humongous nose on Brad Cooper, I knew I was not going to see that movie. Bernstein’s nose was just fine. I go online and get Leonard Bernstein and his music. The real deal.I don’t care for actors playing people I admire; I’d rather have the documentary or the actual person.

  6. As a small town teen in the 50ies,West Side Story was my first Broadway musical, and sadly heard only a snippet of Bernstein’s score in Maestro! Really?

  7. I agree with your review 100%. We watched it last night. When it ended we looked at it each in confusion. Like wth did we just watch??

  8. I loved every minute of Maestro. Bradley Cooper said he made the movie to explore the marriage of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, not necessarily Bernstein’s career.

  9. Thoroughly enjoying Bernstein’s music for over 60 years, I very much looked forward to Maestro, UNTIL the first 35 minutes!! Not ONE NOTE of ANY music nor how he created it but W A Y too much about his shameful sex- cheating personal lifestyle.

  10. Dylan James, after reading your piece about Maestro I found it hard to believe that you saw it, heard it, and followed it. Your very negative and critical words seem to support an obvious flaw that you missed the message.
    I found it to be written, performed and directed with brilliance and great attention to relevant details. I felt that Mr. Bernstein was profoundly depicted with all of his humanity, talent, and genius intact.

  11. Geez. Wish I had written this. It describes exactly how I felt after watching the whole awful work. I had the honor and privilege of being a member of the IPO (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) for a few years before the 1973 war. Bernstein was my muse all my life. And his musicianship was exquisite. None of it was a part of this Bradley Cooper Pretense Project. Ugh!

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