Maestro is beautifully framed, dressed and performed. Bradley Cooper disappears into the
role of Leonard Berstein – especially when he’s under Kazu Hiro’s remarkable prosthetics –
and Carey Mulligan is effortless too as Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife. Cooper and
Mulligan share the screen for much of the two-hour running time, allowing them full dramatic range, but as deft as their performances are, this intimate focus on the Bernsteins’ marriage prevents Maestro coming together as an absorbing, investable biopic.
The dynamic is this – Felicia is a background “muse” who accepts her status until Leonard’s
repeated homosexual affairs become an affront to her and their marriage. It’s a story of
artistry, selfishness, gender roles and conflicted sexuality – and there just isn’t a two hour
film in it. Tension and malaise are present, but the Bernsteins’ relationship is not as
interesting as, say, Elvis Presley and Tom Parker’s, told vividly in Baz Luhrmann’s recent
biopic. While Presley and Parker’s manipulative dynamic unfolds with ecstatic highs and
scheming lows, the Bernsteins’ problems simmer and boil just once during a parkside
argument overlooking Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
The affluent, woodclad locale in which they argue – the Dakota, I believe – is typical of the
Bernsteins’ aesthetic. Every frame of their lives is expensive; idyllic, even. We see some
three decades’ worth of cocktail parties in suburbia, Manhattan and Connecticut that flow
with booze, loquacious dialogue, and almost constant smoking (Bernstein must have
supported the tobacco industry single-handedly).
This is all staged with impressive naturalism, but Cooper’s emphasis on interpersonality has an effect that is both intimate and yet detached and uninvolved. After a 129-minute biopic, I have some understanding of his marriage and sexuality, but I know little more about his work. References to West Side Story come and go and so do brief discussions about popular art and “real” art. There is only one brilliant musical set piece and it precedes Maestro’s most affecting sequence – Felicia’s terminal illness. It’s horrible, sobering stuff.
Bradley Cooper clearly took the project very seriously and while he has not made a total
earnest bore of a film, Maestro is wanting for energy and scope. Outside of Felicia’s death,
there is not much to be truly invested in. Their marriage should feature in any account of
Leonard Bernstein’s life, but it shouldn’t be told at the expense of the man and his work.
Bernstein’s music was fun, rousing and evocative; Cooper’s film, while accomplished in
performance and production values, is really none of these things.