Rated R for a lot of innuendo, a lot of off-screen sex, some language, drug use, and all around misery. It's a bummer of a movie and it feels more R than it probably is. Mostly, it is about Leonard Bernstein's sexual history and makes it R. Here's the deal, if you watched with without sound or subtitles, it would only mostly be inoffensive.
DIRECTOR: Bradley Cooper
Guys, he tried so hard! Do you understand how much I wanted to absolutely love this movie? I mean, I straight up dislike this movie. I don't hate it, but boy-oh-boy, I do not care for this movie at all. All my gripes about how biopics tend to get dull, especially around Oscar season. Not only has Maestro committed every biopic crime. It is somehow less than those other biopics.
I hate beating up on Bradley Cooper. He put his heart and soul into this. If anything, the movie shows a deep commitment to a passion project and every single frame of the movie reflects that. There's all kinds of stuff going on with Leonard Bernstein's nose. I'm not the guy to forgive that, but I never actually noticed it. I think he just wanted to not look like Bradley Cooper for the movie and I kind of get that. It's one of those things that a lot of artists have to deal with. As much as a famous face is a money maker that opens doors to make movies like Maestro, I understand how it can detract from a performance. I think Clooney has to make that decision a lot. He's been in a lot of historical stuff and he always just says, "What if that guy looked and talked like me?" Honestly, I would have preferred that approach, but Cooper's choice to wear prosthetics kind of makes sense. It's almost a reflection to the dedication of such a movie.
And as a director, he kind of directs the crap out of this movie. He uses different aspect ratios to reflect different time periods. Some of the movie is monochromatic, to stress eras of Bernstein. There's some color grading that is actually wonderfully effective. Bernstein in the '70s, which is the hardest to get right, looks beautiful. Maybe, if anything, Maestro gets a cinematography credit because some of those shots are phenomenal. Our introduction to a young Leonard Bernstein in a maze of corridors that transition into one another is just perfect. I have no complaints about the visuals or the music in the movie.
It's just the story.
(I hate all these gaps, but I really want to make that pause obvious. You're welcome.) This story is rough. The story is rough in the sense that there is no real story. Part of that comes from the fact that Bernstein really has no motivation. There isn't a tortured genius. This is a story of a genius who things just come easy to. Sometimes he's a little hard on himself. There's an interview in the movie where Bernstein is frustrated that he hasn't created more groundbreaking work. But for a movie about a famous musician / conductor / composer, this movie is shockingly devoid of focus on music. He says he likes it. He says that it is his life. But so little of the movie is about him creating music. Music of his plays throughout the movie to remind the audiences of the works that Bernstein has worked on, but it's never about the creation. Rather, when you take away all of the sex stuff and relationship stuff, it's just people telling Leonard Bernstein that he's a genius. Music just seems like it is so in the background of this movie when it should be the foundation of the film. Instead, what the movie focuses on is the fact that Leonard Bernstein felt like he was allowed to sleep around with anyone he wanted.
I want to love Carey Mulligan's Felicia. I really like Carey Mulligan and she delivers some knock out performances in this one. (I don't know about Best Actress performances, but they're pretty darned good.) But Felicia is an incredibly reactionary character. She starts off the movie saying that she knows about Bernstein's proclivities and accepts them. I don't know whether this meant that she is okay with Leonard having an open relationship or not. It could just means that she knows that he's bisexual (leaning towards exclusively homosexual) and that's fine. I also don't know whether that means that Bernstein is not romantically attracted to her or whether that means that he simply loves her as the best friend who understands him most. But the movie then jumps all over the place, showing how much Felicia puts up with to make the marriage work. There's a peppering of the role of Jewish performers in America, but that takes a quick backseat to the Leonard Bernstein seducing anything that moves. Felicia grows weary of Bernstein's sexual nature and confronts him on it. But here's the deal...
...Bernstein doesn't care. One thing Cooper is trying to sell us is that Bernstein does love Felicia, despite the fact that he keeps sleeping around. There's a subtext that love is more than sexual love and that polyamory might be the most natural thing for a person like Leonard Bernstein. There's a couple of problems I have with that. The first is that Felicia is obviously hurt about how much he sleeps around. He does it publicly and she establishes rules that he shouldn't embarrass her with his outright sexual advances. He keeps doing that. He never even tries to slow down, even as Felicia spirals into sadness, ultimately dying of cancer. I know that the movie plays up that Bernstein took care of her. That's great and I'm glad that happened. But that's not exceptionalism. That's what a spouse does when the other one has cancer. Heck, the movie might have been more interesting if it was the story about how Leonard Bernstein didn't care for his wife while she was dying.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.