by Rob DiCristino
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.
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.
Maestro hits limited theaters on November 22nd and Netflix on December 20th.