Bradley Cooper’s fake nose is the least of this biopic’s problems

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Netflix, Dec. 20
2 out of 5

Bradley Cooper really wants an Oscar. One can’t blame him. He has been nominated nine times in multiple capacities (producer, scriptwriter, lead and supporting actor). No wonder he’s betting the farm on a biopic, the most frequently rewarded subgenre. Alas, biopics aren’t always the slam dunk award-hungry thespians hope for (see Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy).

In this Leonard Bernstein biopic, Cooper directs, writes, produces and plays the lead. He goes out of his way to honour the celebrated conductor and composer, but forgets a key element: make the subject interesting. I’ve no doubt Bernstein was a fascinating character, but Cooper’s portrayal is skin deep and relies heavily on exposition dumps. Maestro forgoes a central passion in Bernstein’s life: his Civil Rights and anti-war activism. Instead, Cooper focuses on his sex life, and somehow manages to make the salacious details boring.

Bernstein’s story in Maestro begins at age 25, when he has to step in for the New York Philharmonic’s guest conductor. He crushes the assignment, and soon finds himself in demand, domestically and abroad. A gifted musician as well, Bernstein  juggles careers as a composer (West Side Story, On the Waterfront), pianist, and conductor — unwilling to drop any to concentrate on the others.

The flip side of Bernstein’s larger-than-life persona is his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, elevated to co-lead). A successful TV actress, her career becomes a casualty of her husband’s outsized ambition. Not only that, she must cover for his multiple affairs with men he couldn’t be bothered to be discreet about. Why would Felicia do that? Love, sure, but more importantly, the work. Bernstein’s art is too significant to be derailed by a scandal.

In case viewers fail to grasp that, Maestro offers a helpful visual clue mid-film: Felicia stands in Bernstein’s shadow. It’s a pretty shot hampered by insulting obviousness, like the rat at the end of The Departed.

Given his many hats in this production, the buck stops with Cooper. His focus on Bernstein’s marriage could have been the right approach if he had made him or Felicia compelling in any way. Cooper’s performance is closer to an impersonation than characterization (same with Sarah Silverman as his sister). Only occasionally do we get glimpses of the man behind the baton/keyboard.

The actor/director treats Bernstein with extreme reverence, robbing Maestro of conflict. The script is filled with empty words and psychobabble that provide zero insight. The best aspects of Maestro are below the line. The cinematography (by Black Swan’s Matthew Libatique) is sharp and lovely, and the editing elegant — to a fault.

Even though his try-hard attitude rubs many the wrong way, Cooper can be excellent when he gets out of his own way. Just two years ago the actor delivered a memorable one-two punch in Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza. Where lies the difference? He let other people direct him.

Maestro clocks two hours and nine minutes. In theory a reasonable running time. Me? I was looking forward to Bernstein biting it and calling it a night. ■