"Maestro" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Make no mistake about it, Bradley Cooper's newest film, "Maestro", is the work of cinematic genius on a production level. Whether it is the beautiful cinematography, the contrast between black and white, the inspired performances from Cooper and Carey Mulligan, the soundtrack which is a collection of Leonard Bernstein's works, the themes that Cooper is trying to convey here, etc. This movie is done very, very well. Yet, it simply doesn't work as a whole. The story is dull and boring, and I found myself being more interested in the work Cooper was putting in rather than the long life that Bernstein led. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but as a whole, it just feels very superficial and lacks the soul of the story. What was put on the screen is an exercise in cinema for Cooper, which he excelled at. But, it seems like he flounders when he actually tries to tell this story on the screen unfortunately.
Throughout its two-hour runtime, Cooper is telling the life of Bernstein, most specifically on the relationship he had with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Mulligan). It shows the trials and tribulations the couple faces, especially due to Bernstein's closeted homosexuality and his multiple affair with different men. There are multiple reveals about him as a person throughout the movie, including random tidbits about him keeping the bathroom door open as he is afraid of being alone in a room. Yet, it doesn't really feel like we learn anything of substance when watching this film.
Now, like I said, this movie is a marvel. I cannot express enough how beautiful and breathtaking the cinematography by Matthew Libatique is. He is really able to capture these moments in the most beautiful way possible, and really makes it feel like Bernstein's life is truly like a Hollywood film in the golden age. I also adore the way Libatique and Cooper go from B&W to color midway through the movie, conveying the shift in the main couple's relationship and how it goes from feeling like a film on the big screen to the harsh realities of life and infidelity. I can safely say that the cinematography and the cinematic portion of this film are some of the best this past year.
In addition, of course, is the breathtaking and inspired performances by Cooper and Mulligan. For Cooper, who not only stars and directs, but wrote and produced this film, it was definitely a passion project. I really do applaud Cooper for going from fun-guy roles in films like "The Hangover" to making these very serious and thought provoking movies, i.e. this film and 2018's "A Star is Born". He is trying to push the boundaries of his acting abilities and really wants to be a serious actor in the eyes of the viewer. He does that perfectly here, giving one of the best performances of his career. He truly embodies the work of the great composer, and you can see that he is at the top of his game. The same can be said for Mulligan, who has been giving amazing performances for years now. She is an absolute gem and really shines as the starlet of any movie she stars in; this film is no exception, and I would say this is some of her best work.
I also applaud Cooper for being able to convey themes of infidelity and grief in such a way here. He shows cheating as more of a normal activity amongst the couple, rather than this huge bombshell. Felicia knows Leonard has never really been faithful in their marriage, and puts up with the numerous flings he has; Cooper showcases this brilliantly by making it seem as normal as the two men sharing a cup of tea or having a conversation. Consider the moment the film makes the change to color. Leonard brings a man aside and kisses him, and as a viewer, I didn't even bat an eye. It felt so normal, even though one of the men was in another relationship. Cooper really did a great job of directing his crew to make this happen so seamlessly on the screen. At the same time, when the film moves into the conclusion, it really portrays grief so damn well. He really understands how it feels like to be in Bernstein's position, and he is perfectly able to convey that here. I don't want to spoil for those reading that have yet to watched this movie, but I think he does such a great job as a director and actor.
Now here's the fatal flaw - the movie is just so uninteresting. There are not really any big events that happens in Bernstein's life to garner a two hour film about him. Sure, he may have cheated a few times and made some amazing music for film and Broadway, but this movie is way too long for what it is. Besides, we don't see him actually composing these great scores or any of his most popular pieces of music, and it is just mentioned in passing. It seems like Cooper was so obsessed with making this film so beautiful and cinematic that he forgot how to actually tell a compelling and engaging story here. The director and actor side of Cooper simply outmatch the writing that he can do here.
I honestly wonder how much better this movie could have been if Cooper made it fictional. What if he had crafted this movie as a work of fiction, with a fictional protagonist and made-up events that happen to him throughout his life? I honestly think it would work a lot better. Cooper wants to make these serious masterpieces that will outlive him as his legacy, but he just didn't choose the best source material for this one. I hate to say it, but Bernstein just lived a very uneventful life in terms of drama and engaging moments that could be found in a film. And if he did have more drama than what was portrayed in the film, then Cooper simply overlooked it to make it more beautiful and cinematic than anything.
It's honestly a shame. Cooper crafted a beautiful film that could have been a masterpiece if the story and the engagement for the viewer simply worked. He didn't want to tell a complex story that engages the viewer and make them feel entertained about the life of a musical genius, but rather show his chops at being able to write, direct, and act in a film. The direction and the acting was definitely there, but the writing was not unfortunately. I applaud Cooper for what he was able to do and achieve as it simply is so wonderful, but he just falls short.