Five years after surprising us with a stellar remake of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper comes back with Maestro. His sophomore feature follows the true story of Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan). Cooper, who also returns as producer and co-writer (with Josh Singer), plays Bernstein with a spirit as high as a conductor passionately playing his music.
The nose (Jew-face) controversy is absurd; in fact, this is probably your Oscar winner for Best Makeup. Cooper transforms himself with the age showing on his face and Bernstein’s New York accent from a young man in the 1940s towards the end of his life in the late 1980s. But the story is about his marriage with Felicia as much as his musical career, one that very few Americans have in the realm of classical music.
Mulligan as Felicia is a knockout as the actress and singer. Devoted to her beloved Lenny, she must deal with his indiscretions as a bisexual man. Bernstein’s affairs with men were known by the public. At the beginning of the film, we see him answering the phone about making his conductor debut while another man is asleep beside him. Mulligan fills the emotions of being a wife and mother while keeping Lenny’s dalliances with other men in line. The couple argues on Thanksgiving, and Felicia warns Lenny that he could “die a lonely queen.” The scene is devasting.
The film’s weakness comes from its story structure, where the first act sticks to black & white with a fantasy-like transition between scenes. Onto the second act, the scenes jump forward in color without any label of what year we are in before getting to the tragic point in the lives of Leonard and Felicia. It plays like a picture book, but the cohesion feels lacking without context. The third act, in the last years of Bernstein’s life, is just a random dropping point of where he was in the late 1980s. The snippet of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – which mentions Bernstein – is a nice touch.
Maestro does a little too much in changing up its makeup as a biopic, but the magic of Leonard & Felicia Bernstein remains complete. Scenes such as the conducting of a symphony in the church are Cooper’s high peak in his performance. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography keeps us connected with the affluent, socialite atmosphere of the Bernsteins were part of. Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and Sarah Silverman shine in notable supporting roles. It is lush despite the flaws, but Cooper is no one-hit wonder, and his four-tool capabilities – actor, writer, producer, and director – are on display again.