‘A Star Is Born’ has many problems, and Lady Gaga is the solution to most of them

I’ve watched the trailer for A Star Is Born probably about a thousand times. From the first time I heard Lady Gaga sing “HAAA AHH AHH AHH AHHH,” I was completely wrapped up in the hype surrounding this movie. “Shallow,” I assumed, would be the best song in the history of movies, and A Star Is Born would easily be one of my favorite movies of the year.

The film does not live up to these lofty expectations. Of course, it would be hard for any movie to live up them; it’s probably a little unfair to set the film up that way. But it’s also not unfair, because A Star Is Born is a movie that begs for hyperbole, and demands that whether you love it or hate it you feel a lot of emotions. A Star Is Born swings for the fences, and it mostly results in a mess.

The movie’s issues largely stem from the editing room. A Star Is Born stands at a runtime of two hours and 15 minutes, and it could have honestly been a full 45 minutes shorter. The film’s first half hour is its best: a chance encounter at a drag bar leads rockstar Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, also directing) to meet Ally (Lady Gaga), who is performing at the bar. They talk after the performance in the dressing room; they grab a drink; they share a moment in a grocery store parking lot. It’s quiet, intimate, heartfelt stuff.

But many of the scenes in the middle of the movie wander without much of a focus. At times it’s a movie about what it means to say something original as an artist. But it’s also a movie about the cost of pursuing your dreams, and a sappy family drama. For much of the runtime, it is mostly a movie about the tragedy of addiction. Cooper is a first-time director and shows a lot of promise, but I wish he’d been able to narrow his focus more. There are too many unnecessary distractions from the relationship at the heart of the movie.

There are also many characters who are simply miscast or misused. I normally like Sam Elliott, but his whole subplot as Jack’s brother could have been cut completely; the writing in those scenes is cringy. Dave Chappelle plays an old friend of Jack’s named George ‘Noodles’ Stone, a fact I couldn’t have told you without looking on the film’s IMDb page because his character is so thoroughly wasted. And Rafi Gavron, playing Ally’s manager Rez, is completely wrong for the role. The only supporting players who are effective are Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father and Anthony Ramos as her best friend Ramon.

And yet. I walked out of A Star Is Born thinking about all of these issues, but I still found myself thinking it was pretty good overall. How is this possible? Mostly because of Lady Gaga. Cooper may be the lead actor and director, but in her first lead film performance, this is Gaga’s movie. Her face is intensely expressive in every shot, and she grounds the movie in authentic emotion when it strays too far into extreme sentimentality.

The writing in A Star Is Born often doesn’t do Gaga’s character justice. The pacing of Ally’s transformation sometimes doesn’t make sense, and she has to spend a lot of time caretaking for Jack. Even in these moments, Gaga shines. She’s both confident and unsure of herself, totally powerful and completely broken. There are a lot of awards season movies left to come out, but count me in on the Gaga for Best Actress bandwagon right now.

Cooper is very good as well. In a role that could have easily devolved into a stilted southern accent and a bad Eddie Vedder impression, Cooper is genuinely charming and empathetic throughout. He’s particularly good in the quieter moments he has with Gaga, and I hope he focuses more on those sorts of scenes in his next directorial effort.

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without talking about the music, because aside from the two lead performances the excellent soundtrack is the reason you should go see this movie. Cooper is a good singer, but again, the music is another outlet for Gaga to steal the spotlight. She delivers a handful of songs that are not only beautifully delivered but also add to the nuance of her character. “Shallow” remains the highlight; I heard it endlessly in the trailer and it still kills in the movie. The song, and the movie, may not live up to what the trailer suggested A Star Is Born could be. But the film is, ahem, far from shallow, and worth seeing for Lady Gaga alone.

A Star Is Born: 3 stars