Maestro ★½

Though not a great film, A Star Is Born so dramatically exceeded the low expectations born of well-trod material adapted by a perennially unengaging, middlebrow actor that it was hard not to root for Cooper. But whatever miracle kept the worst aspects of star vanity projects at bay for that film hit this with the force of a tsunami. The positives here start and stop with Matthew Libatique's cinematography; Cooper does still know how to pick a good crew, and Libatique films the color scenes with a decent approximation of '70s and '80s film stock and the black-and-white past in a high-contrast shimmer that does far more than Cooper's performance to suggest the ecstasy with which Bernstein approached music.

But both Cooper and Carey Mulligan are atrocious here, reducing their characters to a series of embarrassingly reductive tics like old-timey voices and a few tense gestures of marital ambiguity at the expense of a single insight into either person. Watching this film, it's impossible to guess why Lenny stayed with Felicia for any other reason than cover and especially why Felicia would be so dedicated to a man otherwise depicted as slipping into the gay underground of a repressed era with all the bizarre and unplesant sense of moral judgment that characterized Freddie Mercury's own dive into cruising and cocaine in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Even so, this is a bafflingly sexless movie, something that extends to the unforgivably disengaged way that Cooper approaches Bernstein's actual job. Say what you will about Leonard Bernstein—even fierce admirers of his legacy have bemoaned a "cult of Bernstein" crowding out the music he conducted and even composed in favor of the man's accessible celebrity and demonstrative podium style—this was a man who did far more than any other American before or since (and maybe anyone anywhere since the advent of television) to make classical music seem not like some stuffy affectation of old money or pretentious aesthetes but a living, breathing, relevant form of expression so capable of reaching our emotions that he threw his entire body into the act of conducting. Like Glenn Gould getting so caught up in the melodies underneath Bach's brain-teaser instructional variations that he could not stop himself from humming along to his playing, Bernstein used his entire body as a baton, swaying with woodwinds, slashing with strings and rearing back at blasts of brass and percussion like he was getting buffeted by stormwinds. None of this was about calling attention to himself over the music but because he could not contain his sheer ecstasy at being a conduit for it. It was a kind of orgasmic release, and a filmmaker who felt any spiritual connection to what Bernstein cared about versus the image of Bernstein himself might have tied that back into his complex sex life. Instead, Bernstein's iconic physicality is reduced mostly to a few shots of Cooper making beatific Spielberg Face in spiritual rapture, a perfect summary of this film's misplaced priorities and misread understanding of subject.

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