A Star is Born lives and dies on the crux of the Shallow performance. It functions as the public turning point of Ally’s life, and if the audience within the film is wowed while the viewer isn’t, then her subsequent ascendance will be viewed as unearned. This dissonance is only a theoretical risk, because the film capital-W Works in this scene, a scene that was featured heavily in the trailers that preceded most movies for months before A Star is Born’s release but loses none of its power when it finally shows up in the film itself. The song accentuates the range of her voice, starting softly and tenderly before building to passionate vocalization. Gaga plays the scene as a continuum of doubt and certainty, with the former featuring heavily as she first strides to the mic and the latter taking over as Ally proves to herself that she can do this and do it very well. It never comes off as diva arrogance, but as joy in the long-awaited fulfillment of her talents. The scene stands as one of the best of 2018, an unequivocal triumph that justifies the buildup towards it and powers the rest of the film.
Shallow represents the merging of all aspects of Ally’s and Jack’s lives, but the film is keener on the romance than on the music industry. In their initial meet-cute, first date scenes, A Star is Born is quiet and intimate in a way that suggests the level of trust Cooper has in his script, which he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and in his and Lady Gaga’s performances. A film about two musicians eschews soundtrack or even score for much of their getting-to-know-you interplay. As the relationship progresses, the many red flags that Jack throws off in their first meeting become more pronounced. The arcs for each character, with her in the ascendant and Jack on the decline, move from the background to the foreground over the course of the film, and seeing a talented ingenue emerge out of obscurity is always going to be a more compelling film than a troubled drunk’s decompensation.
In addition to Jack taking up most of the real estate as the film nears its end, Ally becoming a major star in her own right feels empty in a way that Cooper probably didn’t intend. A Star is Born peaks after the end of Jack’s tour, in which Ally played a key role, and she gets hooked up with a producer of her own. Compromises follow, but the film becomes more concerned with how these compromises affect the iconoclastic Jack than on Ally’s decision process in making them. Despite Lady Gaga’s involvement, the film just doesn’t have a lot to say about the music business. This viewer was hoping for something like Beyond the Lights, a film that puts its female singer character in the opposite arc as Ally as she moves from a sexualized poster girl to a naturalistic songstress. Instead, A Star is Born doesn’t challenge the professional path that Ally’s producer puts her on, and therefore, in its last hour, loses track of a character the film otherwise had a clear grasp of.
As for Cooper, his performance is locked in the moment that he cast Sam Elliott as his manager/half-brother. In much the same way that Joseph Gordon Levitt acted in Looper as a younger version of Bruce Willis, Cooper is doing an Elliot impersonation, except Gordon Levitt was actually a younger Willis in Looper. Cooper’s choice to so blatantly imitate Elliott detracts from the film, though it’s not like aspiring to be Sam Elliott is a crazy idea. Elliott, the classic stoic Westerner with his craggy face and deep, studied drawl, has been adding emotional layers to his recent performances. He was devastating in a small role opposite Lily Tomlin in Grandma, and he’s in that vein here as someone who looks a certain way and subsequently surprises with how deeply he’s feeling things. The man is as good with a choked-up monologue is he is at growing a mustache.
Jack has a motto in the film about how being given a stage this large is a tremendous gift of self-expression, and one must make the use of it while it’s available. Who knows how long that cinematic window will be open for Jack’s portrayer, but A Star is Born mostly argues for it being ajar for a long time. A director that can make the practically-perfect first hour of this film has greatness within, and will surely one day make a film that doesn’t let up from start to finish. B-