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Maestro ★★★

Availability: Still showing in theaters nationally; streaming on Netflix; see JustWatch here for complete availability.


Scenes from a Marriage


In a script that’s often subtle and beguiling, a scene in the film’s final 45 minutes, set at the family’s Fairfield, Connecticut summer home, is neither of these. To a crowded room, Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper)—for more than 25 years a household name, a legend—announces triumphantly that he has finished “Mass,” dramatically unfurling the lengthy score for all to see and celebrate. Felicia (Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan), his wife for most of those years, bolts out an open window and, fully clothed, jumps into the pool, where, on the bottom, she sits motionless—not unlike Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” (1967)—contemplating, one imagines, just how she put up with this guy for so long. We are all thinking the same thing.


Felicia Montealegra (Carey Mulligan) and Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) in the 4 years of their courtship, when they revel in their closeness, here trying to guess what number the other is thinking.





Cooper’s Lenny can be charming, playful, joyful, likeable and, as Felicia discovers in her 4-year seduction of a young man in the throes of early and unprecedented success and celebrity, even loveable.

 

Bernstein is self-indulgent, egoistic, in constant need of adulation. It’s all about him.

 

As she must have grasped as she sprints for the pool, she was wrong. Through most of the film, Bernstein is self-indulgent, egoistic, in constant need of adulation, and consumed with the idea that he needs to be totally “free” to realize his genius, free of any consequences. It’s all about him. In an early, romantic scene with Felicia, he basks in the role of “king.” Their 3 children are an afterthought. Although he acknowledges and appears to value his wife’s competence as an actress, more than one conversation that begins with a query about her acting evolves into a discussion of his lack of acting talent—a feigned humility that allows Leonard to once again dwell on himself.


Above, Felicia and Leonard at their Fairfield CT summer home,

where she ministers to his lamentations on his lack of creativity.

Or perhaps the extrovert is melancholy

because he's apart from his New York City crowds.

 

One could make the case that Felicia is complicit in the marital mess that resulted.

 

There are hints of this when Felicia says “let’s give it a whirl,” suggesting something like a trial marriage, and her later expression of “guilt” that she hadn’t better understood her husband’s limitations, especially his inability to give himself emotionally to others. “I’ve always known who he is,” she notes, and that surely applies to Leonard as a gay man. In that era, he could not be openly gay and succeed, and she was willing to accommodate that not uncommon lifestyle. But she could hardly have known he would express his homosexuality in so “sloppy” a way (that is, indiscreetly and rudely), or that this complex man would be incapable of having an honest and productive conversation about his behavior and their relationship. The screenplay, co-written by Cooper and Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (“Spotlight” 2015), rather too obviously suggests that the couple’s incompatibility resides in his extroversion and her introversion, but that doesn’t explain why he can be such a jerk.

 

What doesn’t work is the film’s obvious effort to make its protagonist into a reasonable person.

 

Cooper, who also directed, is entitled to his take on Leonard, and maybe—who knows?—the real Leonard Bernstein deserves to be pilloried. What doesn’t work is the film’s obvious effort to recuperate its protagonist, to make him into a reasonable person after showing him so deeply flawed. The narrative accomplishes this slight-of-hand in two ways. The first is to emphasize Leonard’s passion for his work (great artists may do bad things, but they’re great artists). Not long after Felicia has accused Leonard of sucking the life out of everyone around him, Leonard conducts Mahler’s Symphony #2 in C Minor, conveniently named “Resurrection,” to a packed Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England. In the instructions of the screenplay, he is brilliant, “both athlete and dancer… emanating sheer, unabashed ecstasy.” Inexplicably—having told Leonard she “wants to stop the bus and get off,” Felicia is on hand, ready and willing to affirm, with her words and her kisses, that all is forgiven, that he is right to indulge in self-love and, just as important, that he is a good man.


Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) conducting 

Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection"

with "unabashed [maniacal?] ecstasy."


As if that weren’t enough, Felicia discovers (spoiler alert!) she has life-threatening cancer, a condition that allows the film’s Leonard to emerge as a compassionate, caring person, even—here’s the proof—agreeing to cancel a performance while his wife is on her deathbed!

 

"Maestro" is seductively layered with themes of queerness and artistic tension it can’t quite fully develop.

 

Bernstein is in the company of recent outsized characters—Oppenheimer, Napoleon, Barbie, and Lydia Tár, in films that show well on the big screen, and “Maestro” uses all that Hollywood has to offer in highly-produced, even fantastical scenes, especially in its first third, moving from color to black-and-white and back to color, changing screen ratios, and employing montages. It’s also seductively layered with themes of queerness and artistic tension it can’t quite fully develop. Cooper’s Lenny demonstrates his obvious attraction to men, but Cooper the writer steers clear of the sexuality that’s needed to make that attraction deep and real. When Felicia tells Lenny he’ll end up, embarrassingly, “an old queen,” we haven’t been shown the intense sexual desire required to understand or counter that image. On a parallel track, “Maestro” develops the tension between Bernstein’s extroversion (he works and talks to people with the bathroom door open)—an extroversion that feeds his signature exuberant conducting style as well as his attraction to celebrity—and his desire for the introversion that nurtures musical creativity and composition, a tension overshadowed by the marital drama.


Cooper shies away from overtly putting on screen Bernstein's sexual desire for men, with foot rubbing about as far as it goes.




Director Mike Nichols at least had the good sense to conclude “The Graduate” on an enigmatic note, with Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson uncomfortably seated next to each other in the back of a bus—he having swept her from the altar where she was about to be married to another man—understandably concerned that Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson, her mother, might have consequences going forward. Unfortunately, Cooper’s Hollywood-esque desire to rehabilitate his Leonard and suture a bleeding marriage vitiates his portraits of both Leonard and Felicia and damages two exceptional performances—his own and Mulligan’s—while overpowering an innovative, captivating, and inspiring opening sequence, as well as his own clever and provocative script, with an ending that can only be described as mawkish melodrama.


A good movie ending badly.


 

Date: 2023

Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 129 minutes

Other Awards: 17 wins and 126 other nominations

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