The new A Star Is Born, fourth film of that title, is an important first film for two of its main principals. For Lady Gaga, playing the titular star, it is her first real acting role of any significance, following cameos in Machete Kills, Muppets Most Wanted, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. For Bradley Cooper, it's his first time as a director or a writer of a motion picture. And in both cases, I have much the same reaction: good enough that I'm curious to see what they get up to next time, once they learn a little bit. In Gaga's case, it's how to funnel her very interesting presence into a more consistent performance with greater interiority. In Cooper's it's a lot of little things about pacing, scene transitions (though I guess that's as likely to be on the rather slack and at times actively sloppy editing by Jay Cassidy as on the direction), and making sure every actor is working in the same idiom, and one rather big thing about how there are, actually, more shot scales than just "close-up" and "medium wide shot".

For that, as much as anything, is the defining trait of A Star Is Born: it is fucking infested with close-ups - not exclusively, and I can think of two specific shots where cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes something extremely interesting of the widescreen frame (one is a beautiful wide shot that stretches from cool blue light on the right side to a hot red on the left, with the anguished Cooper caught in the middle; one is an extraordinary combination of an extreme close-up of Cooper on the right, while some out-of-focus dancers twist around in the far background on the left, in a neat visual summary of the state of the conflict at that point). But still, close-ups dominate. Like a lot of actors-turned-directors, Cooper's instinct, very nearly 100% of the time, is to concede everything to the cast, trusting that simply putting the camera up very near to somebody's face is going to be generative. Especially, Cooper seems perilously over-infatuated with his leading man, who is of course Cooper himself; for also like a lot of actors-turned-directors, Cooper seems to be doing this mostly for the ego boost.

That being said, the film's direction is hardly bad: there's a direct, blunt quality that combines the typical approach of Cooper's obvious mentors, David O. Russell (with whom he has made three movies), and Clint Eastwood (with whom he has made only one,* American Sniper, though it contains what is by an enormous margin Cooper's best performance), drawing upon Eastwood's unsentimental interest in the natural surfaces of performances and Russell's skill at allowing actors in pairs to create interesting rhythms between themselves, unforced by the editing or anything else. It's probably not the best imaginable approach for a first-timer in such a demanding, all-encompassing role as Gaga has been handed, and it seems more than likely that some of the most obvious missteps in her performance (she has a tendency to go merely loud rather than genuinely upset in the film's angry scenes, of which there are several in the film's back half) result from a director who wasn't quite there to help her recalibrate her line readings when they weren't all the way there. Probably because he was too busy lovingly cooing over her scene partner.

Nevertheless, Gaga manages to get pretty far purely on conviction and screen presence, and whatever else might be lacking in this version of A Star Is Born, it is absolutely beyond dispute that the two leads have immense chemistry with each other, in both the positive sense (they seem very much in love and lust with each other) and the negative one (there's a terrifyingly casual ease with which they say things designed expressly to hurt each other). Large passages of the movie consist of nothing but Gaga and Cooper chatting, and the perfect comfort with which they do so is the film's second greatest strength. The first greatest strength is Sam Elliott's performance as Cooper's much older brother (and, somewhat distractingly, Cooper's vocal model; that the film calls explicit attention to this in one scene does not help matters); as we've learned from so many Eastwood pictures, it's the ultra-reliable workhorses who do best in this kind of relaxed, hands-off environment, and Elliott's overly-indulgent warmth mixed with mild self-hatred at just how indulgent he's willing to be is wholly splendid, the one element of the film that fully earns the extremes of praise it has received since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

Anyway, with all that said, there's a story here, one that has been extensively workshopped over the decades. It's most explicitly a remake of the 1976 A Star Is Born, insofar as it's set in the music industry rather than the film industry (incidentally, with a sample size of four, I think it's fair at this point to say that the material works better when the characters are actors; that being said, the 2018 film is so much better than the '76 version that it seems unfair to compare them). But the beats have been left largely untouched ever since 1937: he (Jackson Maine in this case, restoring the character's original surname) is a superstar just a little bit past the peak of his career, and with a dependence on alcohol that has gone from "acceptable, because you are famous" to "people are starting to talk" sometime in the last little while; she (Ally, annoyingly deprived of a surname) is a nobody with a talent the size of a mountain range, discovered by him when he stops by a dive bar for an emergency late night drink. As captivated by her talent and self-possession as by her beauty, he encourages her to pursue her artistic ambitions, and they fall in love and marry along the way; as her career reaches the absolute pinnacle of financial and critical success, his addiction (sharpened by jealousy) finally kills of his career, and he somewhat resentfully adjusts to the status of house husband.

I won't say that this can't be fucked up - the 1976 film rather comprehensively disproves that theory - but it's such a perfect mixture of movie-movie wish fulfillment and ugly human realism, giving both stars so many chances to show off a range of feelings, that it would have to take a whole lot to render it completely unpleasurable and emotionally inert. Truth be told, the new Star Is Born goes further in that direction than it's getting credit for: the film takes a sizable tumble after Ally hits it big, performing her song "Shallow" with Jackson at one of his latest stadium concerts (incidentally, no version of this story has ever been particularly concerned with industry plausibility since maybe the proto-Star, 1932's What Price Hollywood?, but the idea that Jackson's rock-inflected country-folk music would be a big hit with 2010s audiences is particularly hard to buy. We can charitably say that he's basically playing Kris Kristofferson, the co-star of the 1976 film, but we then must note that Kristofferson's commercial heyday was almost a half of a century ago). It is perhaps magnified by how much better this first performance of "Shallow" is than anything else in the movie: a gloriously restrained affair, focused nearly exclusively on Gaga's minutely shifting expressions and amusingly nervous gestures, the place in the film where all the close-ups best serve to direct our attention to the human emotion underpinning the overt spectacle.

At any rate, the film's turn into a grave domestic drama of addiction is rocky as hell: for one, it's only here that director Cooper's insistent focus on actor Cooper becomes conspicuous, in part because this half of the story has always tended to foreground the male character's descent into self-destruction. The really bad part is that the film quite loses any control over its rhythm and chronology, shooting past plot events in a shaggy non-structure that finds Ally going from some viral uploads on YouTube to serving as musical guest on Saturday Night Live in what seems to be about three weeks; also, at least one entire character appears wholly out of thin air, with the clear assumption that we'll just understand why he's important. It is the very most irritating sort of "this happens, then this happens, then this happens" storytelling, and it makes the 136-minute film feel substantially longer.

Still, those opening 40 minutes or so are pretty damn solid, tracking Ally and Jackson's tentative courtship - she notably defensive and nervous, he unabashedly open and beaming and puppyish and greedy - in a more restrained register than any previous version of this story, and doing a good deal to flesh out the worlds that both characters inhabit. It's also in this opening sequence that the music-heavy film showcases the only two numbers that really stand out from the somewhat middling soundtrack (the plot arc, inexplicably, is basically "what if Lady Gaga was just like a hackier, worse version of Lady Gaga", complete with a couple of unnecessarily shitty Gaga-lite pop songs to sell it): "Shallow", and the moody bit of foreshadowing "Maybe It's Time"; probably not coincidentally, the same two songs that are given multiple reprises throughout the film. It's never on par with the 1937 and 1954 versions of this material, but the 2018 film's very fine first act is an entirely convincing argument that there's something still vital in this story, something that can be brought into the 21st Century with its wholly different concerns and its much less certain embrace of melodrama (a genre this film hasn't quite cracked; not without smothering it in realism, anyway). The film runs out of steam a long time before it runs out of plot, but when it's all working, this is a perfectly worthy addition to the Star Is Born canon.




*A second, The Mule, is forthcoming, but it was filmed after A Star Is Born.