The fourth official iteration of A Star Is Born, the saga of a woman's rising fortunes contrasting with the downward spiral of the man who discovers her, follows in the tradition of having a gay icon in the leading role. In fact, after Judy Garland in the 1950s, Barbra Streisand in the 1970s, and Lady Gaga in the 2010s, I'm surprised they didn't do a version in the 1990s with Madonna.
Bradley Cooper, in his directorial debut, plays the downwardly-spiraling man this time, an alcoholic country-rock star named Jackson Maine. An amalgam of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Kris Kristofferson in the '70s A Star Is Born, the fortysomething Jackson has no clear analog in today's music world. Although Cooper isn't a bad singer, and Jackson's songs (written by Cooper and Lukas Nelson) sound legit, I was left wondering just what sort of career Jackson's supposed to have had, to be as famous as he is. Was he a '90s grunge star who became a successful roots-rocker? A country star with crossover appeal? Jackson's rich enough to commandeer a Learjet at will, and enjoys a Springsteen-level recognizability (even drag queens and black supermarket cashiers fawn over him), yet he plays modest 5,000-seat venues like LA's Greek Theater instead of huge stadiums. It doesn't quite jibe.
Such questions of logic often pop up when actors take over the director's chair, as they tend to put all their energy into exploring character and finding the emotional core of individual scenes, and don't step back enough to see how the story is supposed to click. To wit: while the first half of A Star Is Born is almost flawless – a thirsty Jackson wanders into a gay bar on the night when struggling waitress Ally (Lady Gaga) kills it with her rendition of La Vie en Rose, then sets to wooing Ally both onstage and off – the second has Ally go straight from singer-songwritery duets with Jackson to dance-pop superstardom, with little time spent detailing this transformation or even asking what kind of music Ally actually prefers.
The film almost gets away with Ally's improbable transition because Lady Gaga is a singular figure who we already know can churn out Madonna-esque club tracks one week and sing oldies with Tony Bennett the next. With anyone else in the role, Ally's career trajectory would be ludicrous. (In reality, a 32-year-old woman who is not conventionally attractive would never be plucked for pop stardom: Gaga herself was just 21 during her own rise to fame, and she offset her plain looks with outlandish makeup and costumes.)
Even so, there's not much definition to Ally's character, beyond her extraordinary singing ability and her undying love for Jackson, even when his drunken antics threaten her very career. Don't blame Gaga, whose acting work is fine. Blame Cooper and his male cowriters, who were obviously more interested in Jackson, embodied by Cooper with a warm Kristoffersonian growl and a lived-in inebriation. (You can practically smell the liquor on his breath; it's a terrific performance.) Crucially, the two characters never convince as a couple, even if Cooper and Gaga have some chemistry.
In the end, I thought A Star Is Born was okay. As lengthy as it is, at 2 hours and 16 minutes, the story would have been better told as perhaps a 4-6 hour miniseries, with a more realistic look at the industry machinations behind Ally's raise to fame, and a more realistic look at the industry, period. But boy, that Lady Gaga sure can sing.