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Bradley Cooper chews scenery as Bernstein

What a shame that the major controversy surrounding the movie “Maestro,” the Leonard Bernstein biopic that had its North American premiere Monday night at the New York Film Festival, was over its director-and-star Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose. 

Instead, the uproar should have been about his wildly self-indulgent schmacting as he plays the brilliant composer of “West Side Story” and “Mass.” 

movie review

Running time: 129 minutes. Rated R (some language and drug use). In select theaters Nov. 22. On Netflix Dec. 20.

Cooper certainly looks the part of the late lauded leader of the New York Philharmonic thanks a little bit to genetics and a lot to heavy makeup. 

He unnaturally contorts his modern voice into Bernstein’s National Public Radio-calm brogue, and aggressively grabs hold of the musician’s well-known bizarre habits (casual open-mouth kisses, for one).

Still, the actor works so hard it hardly works. 

Nothing Cooper does is organic or authentic, and his show-off performance is always stilted. He arduously thinks through every single choice — it’s time to scream into a pillow; cue the laugh; ready, set, cry.

Nobody goes to a movie to watch actors ponder their next beat. We want to feel, and his overwrought turn does not allow us to.

But who cares? Cooper will surely be the recipient of the many accolades that automatically accompany what constitutes good, prestigious acting today: hoary impressions that are proven right by archival footage we’re shown during the end credits. The typical Oscars rubric.

Bradley Cooper goes over the top as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro,” which he also directed.

Despite Cooper’s manic behavior, “Maestro” isn’t a total clunker because he’s a much better director this time than he is an actor. And he was terrific in “A Star Is Born” (which he also helmed) and “Nightmare Alley,” by the way. “Maestro” is a handsome movie that cleverly, if somewhat pretentiously, changes visual styles as it moves through the decades in Manhattan and Bernstein’s country houses.

During the 1950s when he rockets to worldwide superstardom, the look is a smokey black-and-white “All About Eve” scene. The ‘60s, as his family life crumbles and he succumbs to narcissism and sex, are saturated and bold like, well, the original “West Side Story” film. And during the ‘70s, when reality hits and his pain crescendos, the color drains away as it did in so many movies of that unglamorous and grimy era.

Unlike your typical “genius” biopic that depicts Ray Kroc franchising McDonalds (“The Founder”) or Julia Child writing “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (“Julie and Julia”), “Maestro” isn’t concerned much with Bernstein’s stratospheric achievements in the world of music.

Bernstein’s (Cooper) younger days are depicted alongside wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).
Jason McDonald/Netflix

If you want to learn about Bernstein’s process of composing his seminal “West Side Story,” “On The Town” or “Candide,” crack open a book. His classical career is given more airtime than Broadway in “Maestro” — he calls show tunes “not very serious music” — yet even then the man just sort of arrives in front of an orchestra, animatedly waves a baton and then quickly moves onto the next repetitive living-room scene. 

As far as conductor movies go, the fictional (and better) “Tár” is far more invested in notes and woodwinds than this one is.

“Maestro” alternatively puts its focus on Bernstein’s 27-year marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a Costa Rican-Chilean actress who became famous in her day, as he indiscreetly slept with and had relationships with younger gay men like Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick). Matt Bomer plays another of his lovers.

Bit parts are played unmemorably by Sarah Silverman as Bernstein’s sister and Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins. Refreshingly, Maya Hawke is wonderful and tender as Bernstein’s daughter Jamie.

Felicia’s life becomes chaotic as Bernstein’s affairs with men are whispered about around town.
Jason McDonald/Netflix

The film’s emotional center though is Mulligan’s steadfast Felicia, who struggles with and is embarrassed by her husband’s highly visible gay flings and then is diagnosed with cancer later in life. The actress, who has a genteel Glinda the Good Witch voice, is what keeps our attention as we question why Felicia stands by her man. Their love story was a complex one, to say the least. When the stoic woman starts to crack, it’s devastating.

A more balanced mix of Bernstein’s work and family life would have painted a more complete picture and added some variance to the film that plateaus halfway through. There is something to be said, though, about going against the paint-by-numbers grain and creating a deeper exploration of a person than just a cinematic Wikipedia page. “Maestro” aims to do that, but doesn’t quite get there.

Cooper might’ve had a timeless portrayal of Leonard Bernstein, an important New Yorker and fascinating man, in him. The pieces are all there, just improperly assembled. 

The trouble is that when the star is also the director, he’s not gonna tell himself to tone it down. The actor would have been smart to hand off the baton to someone else.

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