It’s one of those pop-science facts that always gets repeated, probably because it sounds so tragically, romantically cool: By the time their light reaches earth, thousands of stars in the sky have already died. And it does feel like an apt metaphor for Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine the first time we see him onstage. At fortyish, he’s the kind of mid-career musician who’s already graduated to legend, playing his dusky blues-rock anthems to sold-out stadium crowds who sing every word right back to him. But there’s no joy in it for him anymore, if there ever was; the minute the show is over he heads straight to his chauffeured car to be alone with the bottle that’s always waiting for him.

We’ve seen this movie before, of course — four times now and counting — so we know it’s not A Star Is Bored. Jackson is only minutes away from meeting the young unknown who will make him believe in everything again: Ally (Lady Gaga), a plucky part-time cater-waiter with a pair of sanitary gloves in her pocket and a song in her heart who just happens to be performing at the L.A. drag club Jackson stumbles into in search of more numbing alcohol. He’s enchanted; she’s flattered and confused. By the next morning, at least one of them has fallen a little bit in love.

Gaga’s serious-actress transformation for her first major film role will undoubtedly lead the conversation, and she certainly deserves praise for her restrained, human-scale performance as a singer whose real-girl vulnerability lands miles away from the glittery meat-dress delirium of her own stage persona. And the original songs (most of which Gaga and Cooper share full or partial credit for) are memorably, sturdily melodic —though not the conspicuously flat dance-pop Ally moves toward as her career swerves closer toward the mainstream.

Credit: Neal Preston/Warner Bros.

The movie also has some great unexpected supporting turns, including Dave Chappelle as an old Tennessee friend of Jackson’s and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s Rat Pack-dreamer dad. Their characters read much realer and more textured than the ones designed to move the plot along, like Ally’s smooth, ruthless manager Rez (Rafi Gavron), a textbook music-industry Machiavelli.

But it’s Cooper, in his directing debut, who ultimately has to carry the film from both sides. He’s talked in interviews about working to drop his voice to a deeper register, and his Jackson is a sort of drawling, denim-clad cowboy-poet very much in the mode of Kris Kristofferson’s iconic 1976 iteration and Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart — an archetype whose familiarity lives somewhere between sincere tribute and Marlboro Man cliché. (He also works in shades of Sam Elliott, who appears in a few pivotal scenes as his much-older brother–slash–manager, and maybe some other Sam too: the late, great Shepard).

Behind the camera, Cooper has clearly pledged allegiance not to the 1937 or 1954 Stars but to the naturalistic New Cinema style of his ’70s predecessor, all long highways, canyon light, and sun-flared closeups. His camera works with a kind of feverish intimacy, closing in as Ally’s profile rises and Jackson stumbles back toward the bottle. That closeness also becomes a bell jar that descends over the film, keeping the audience locked into the couple’s growing unhappiness (and by extension the airless, lonely disconnect of fame).

The run time clocks in at well over two hours, which is longer than it strictly needs to be; though there’s also something gratifying about a major Hollywood production that meanders the way this movie does, without forcing a jazzy excess of new characters and conflicts on the narrative.If the ending is telegraphed from miles away, and the central romance feels more like a gorgeously patina-ed imitation of life than the real thing, maybe that’s because Star is less a story now than a myth — not so much reborn as recast and passed on to the care of the next generation. B+

A Star Is Born (2018)
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