Maestro (2023)

Superficial ‘Maestro’ isn’t well conducted

High among Boston’s favorite sons, Leonard Bernstein never forgot his roots. He adored his hometown and state, spending nearly every summer of his adult life guest-conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. But much like Babe Ruth was snatched away from the Hub, Bernstein notched his greatest triumphs as a – gulp – New Yorker. It’s where he composed the iconic “West Side Story,” captained the world-renowned New York Philharmonic, and spent decades on TV educating musically inclined children with his landmark “Young People’s Concerts.”

Composer, conductor, educator. These are Bernstein’s legacies, but they are often little more than side notes in the much-ballyhooed “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s predominantly one-man portrait of a musical legend he defines more by his bi-sexuality than his professional acumen. Call me persnickety, but I walked away from this otherwise superb depiction disappointed by the film’s tedious, one-note trek. Where and with whom Bernstein opts to spend the night is not that interesting, not when there’s so much more to mine from arguably the nation’s finest cultural contributor of the 20th century.

No matter. As the director, producer, co-writer and star, “Maestro” is Cooper’s world and we’re just living in it for 130 aesthetically pleasing minutes. He controls all that you will see and hear, nuances be damned. Ditto for continuity, as “Maestro” flits about, concentrating on moments more than a traditional bio-pic throughline. It’s a daring approach. It may not always work, but it is a refreshing strategy for taking on a man and a life much too full and complex to pare down to feature length.

In his lofty quest, Cooper eagerly digs deep into a bag of cinematic tricks, freely mixing black and white and color, shifting screen-size aspects and an array of tones, from glimmers of light-hearted romance to clever irony to devastating tragedy. And, of course, a grand display of music and performance.

Abetted by his “A Star Is Born” cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Cooper paints an opulent picture worthy of New York’s lofty social circles, where artists as diverse as choreographer Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie) and song-and-dance masters Adolph Green (Nick Blaemire) and Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) gather around Bernstein’s piano for long nights of unadulterated fun and revelry.

As Bernstein, Cooper employs a strange, nasally timber, chewing up scenery with abandon. After all, he wrote these over-the-top scenes for himself alongside Oscar-winner Josh Singer (“Spotlight”). It’s very much a vanity production. And it’s pronounced to the extent that he repeatedly overshadows the film’s intended star, Carey Mulligan, as Bernstein’s long-suffering wife, actress Felicia Montealegre.

Mulligan is a picture of elegance and grace, lending an aura of a noble martyr having married Bernstein well aware of his proclivity for handsome young men. She willingly agrees to an open marriage, but has numerous second thoughts, often feeling like a third wheel after witnessing her husband’s indiscreet cooing to his latest conquest. Yet, she soldiers on, taking solace in the presence of their three children, the oldest of which is nicely played by Maya Hawke, herself a product of a real-life union of star-crossed stars.

Although they share only minute chemistry, Cooper and Mulligan are a delight early on, as Lenny (as he likes to be called) and Felicia embark on a whirlwind romance bursting with glamour and charm. It’s a courtship nicely embellished by the evocative black-and-white photography and the narrow screen ratios representative of the late 1940s. This is also the portion of the film where Cooper and Singer craft the film’s best dialogue exchanges, delivered rhythmically in a rat-a-tat pace that would do Kate and Spence proud.

It’s only when we’re abruptly thrust into the 1970s, bypassing Bernstein’s prime years as a composer, that the story begins to drag, as Felicia sinks further into a depression over the state of her lavender marriage. Ironically, it’s also when the film is splashed with color, as we take up residence at the couple’s summer home in Connecticut and in the world-famous Dakota in Manhattan, where the family is gifted with a prime vantage point for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It’s during the latter that the film’s clunkiest scene unfolds as Lenny and Felicia hurl furious insults while a Snoopy balloon wafts past their windows.

It struck me that I was laughing at what is intended to be one of the film’s most intense scenes. And the resulting revelation was that Cooper is not a gifted dramatist. He can write and direct romance with the best of them, as evidenced by “A Star is Born.” But when it comes to depicting drama, he consistently strikes out. And this is a killer for a third act brimming with solemn, weighty moments that routinely fail to register.

Cooper also can’t seem to decide whose song this is, Lenny’s or Felicia’s. Since Mulligan gets top billing, I’m assuming it’s hers, but the most vivid memories we’re left with are of Lenny and his offputting behavior. He can be a real jerk. But why is that? It’s a key issue the film opts never to exploit. In fact, there is more left unspoken than revealed. For instance, why are we not privy to the inner lives of any of his male lovers, most notably, longtime companion David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer)? As close as Cooper gets is a brief scene of Lenny rubbing David’s feet and later, a slightly humorous encounter on the street with Lenny boasting to David and David’s new wife that he slept with both of them.

All the while, you keep longing for the film to regain the solid footing it started on. But it’s not to be, as Cooper struggles to find a purpose for his movie. Only when Felicia lies wasting away on her deathbed does it exhibit a momentary reprieve, before reverting to more of Lenny being Lenny, flashing his genius on stage and indulging his thirst for young, gay admirers off. It builds toward a sad coda for a great man. And an even sadder one for Cooper and his often inharmonious opus.

Movie review


Rated: Some language and drug use

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and Sarah Silverman

Director: Bradley Cooper

Writers: Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer

Runtime: 130 minutes

Where: On Netflix

Grade: B-

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