Monday, November 20, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

In which Bradley Cooper hits the sophomore slump.

In one of Maestro’s earliest movements, the camera lingers on a darkened room. A square panel of light bleeds through, masked by a heavy curtain. Is this a window? A stage? Then: a ringing phone. A hushed conversation ensues, peppered with puffs on an incandescent cigarette. Suddenly, a figure leaps into frame, tearing the curtain aside and filling the frame with light. We’re in a lofted bedroom, and a young Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) is jumping for joy, giving his sleeping partner a hearty slap on the behind and sprinting down the stairs and through the door. The camera cranes to a birds-eye view, and we’re quickly in the wings of Carnegie Hall. It’s the evening of November 14th, 1943, and a tuxedoed Bernstein is about to make his conducting debut for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He waits at the edge of the stage, pulsing with that vibrant, infectious energy that will draw so many into his orbit over the course of his storied professional career. Bernstein seems to sense that his journey — every bit joyous as it is heartbreaking — is about to begin.
One imagines that Maestro actor, director, and co-writer Bradley Cooper thought long and hard about how to stage this introduction, one as buoyant and gregarious as the composer himself. It was important to convey Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality not just in the text, but through the text. Bernstein’s most popular works are inherently cinematic — He’s perhaps most famous for scoring West Side Story — and it doesn’t take a generational auteur to see the merits in treating his life story as an elaborate symphony of movement and emotion. Thing is, Bradley Cooper wants to be a generational auteur, and we don’t need his prosthetically-altered nose to smell it from a mile away. His freshman effort, 2018’s A Star is Born, wasn’t just a rousing critical and commercial success; it was a statement of intent, a deliberate shift away from what was a charming — if somewhat ineffectual — movie star persona and toward something more thoughtful, layered, and honest. That Cooper’s sophomore effort would double down on the grandiosity is hardly a surprise.
Maestro is certainly grandiose. Following Bernstein’s triumphant debut, the conductor’s new acclaim is punctuated by a chance meeting with actress Felicia Montaelegre (Carey Mulligan, whose voracious desire to portray over-encumbered love interests in prestige dramas now borders on obsession). Felicia’s free spirit is a hearty compliment to her soon-to-be-husband’s own, and her acquiescence to Bernstein’s complicated sexual proclivities grants him an opportunity to forge a socially-acceptable identity without spending a lifetime in the closet. Felicia accepts that her husband will step out on her with men — particularly the much younger clarinetist, Tommy (Gideon Glick) — because she understands that his brand of genius needs to be fostered and channeled in a very specific way. Though her patience wears thin at the narratively-appropriate time (the pair separates for a few months before reuniting just prior to Felicia’s cancer diagnosis), Felicia admits that her husband never lied to her; their friction came from her own failings, not his.

And if you’re starting to wonder why so much of Maestro’s cinematic real estate is devoted to Bernstein’s sexual idiosyncrasies instead of to his musical genius, well, so was I. “A work of art does not answer questions,” begins the film in epigraph. “It provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension within the contradictory answers.” It’s a powerful quote from Bernstein, one suggesting that Maestro will explore that tension in intricate detail. Instead, Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer (whose prestige credits include Spotlight and The West Wing) deliver a flat and uninspired screenplay that hopes we’ll be so enraptured by Cooper and Mulligan’s performances — bright and charming though they may be — that we won’t notice the lack of genuine dramatic nuance or tension. Cooper can’t see his forest for his trees, and his would-be love story for the ages fails to congeal in any meaningful way. To be clear, Maestro sports a handful of notable moments — You’ll never see the Thanksgiving Parade Snoopy float the same way again — but they add up to very little at all.
Instead, we have a classic Oscar bait vanity project, an actor/director with an unearned and unfortunate air of superiority falling into one of the oldest and most predictable of cinematic traps. It’s hard to blame Cooper, of course, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with swinging for the fences on the company dime. But Maestro’s lack of coherence and insight may betray a fundamental lack of depth on the part of its multi-hyphenate mastermind; if these are the most interesting things he has to say about one of the most important artists in the Western canon, then Cooper may not be quite as qualified to bring him to silver-screen life as he’s been led to believe. Bernstein’s musical identity is largely incidental in Maestro, making a late scene of Cooper conducting in real time (for which he allegedly spent six years in preparation) seem all the more misguided. Cooper has absolutely nothing to say about Bernstein’s music, and therefore — by the film’s own painstaking admission — he has absolutely nothing to say about the man, at all.

hits limited theaters on November 22nd and Netflix on December 20th.


  1. How would you say this compares to Tár? As a classical music lover I'm glad to have two new movies on the subject.

    1. I wouldn’t say this movie has much to do with classical music at all, which is one of its major weaknesses. I much prefer Tár.