As recently as five years, ago, the idea of Bradley Cooper as the writer-director-star of an Oscar-worthy biopic of legendary American conductor Leonard Bernstein would have seemed like a piece of unkind parody. What’s next, you might ask: Rob Lowe is Noam Chomsky? Ryan Reynolds is Spiro Agnew?
Of course, the handsome actor who became a box-office draw with the raunchy comedy The Hangover had demonstrated some legit chops in Silver Linings Playbook. But it wasn’t until 2018’s A Star Is Born that he became a triple-threat auteur. Even that film, though, didn’t hint at the ambition and talent (both in front of and behind the camera) on display in Maestro.
One the one hand, this is a fairly typically structured biography. It opens with an aging, tobacco-stained but still vigorous Bernstein being interviewed by a film crew. (This is a device Cooper returns to for expository purposes throughout.) He speaks of seeing his wife Felicia’s ghost. “I miss her terribly,” he says, our cue that this life story will be a love story as much as, if not more than, an artistic one.
The film then switches from color to black-and-white as a young Bernstein is awakened from the bed he’s sharing with his male lover by the phone call that would change his life. Making his sterling debut with the New York Philharmonic on short notice would be the first step in his ascension to the top ranks of the American cultural elite. Cooper executes some bravura, if illusory, long shots, starting with the one that takes our subject from his bedroom in boxers and bathrobe to the podium of the concert hall.
From there, it’s a whirlwind tour of mid-century New York, an amphetamine-and-cigarette-fueled music scene that includes Jerome Robbins, Aaron Copland, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and others. Not being as versed in that milieu as I should be, I had to Google David Oppenheim, I’m afraid.)
Leonard’s sister (Sarah Silverman) introduces him to Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan), and the scene is about as convincing a depiction of love at first sight as you’ll find. Mulligan, as you’d expect, takes the potentially thankless wife role and endows Felicia with texture and, eventually, pathos. She’s utterly accepting of Bernstein’s bisexuality, basically shrugging at the notion of an open relationship: “Let’s give it a whirl!”
The major theme of Maestro is its subject’s protean, multifaceted nature, whether sexually, musically, or intellectually. “The world wants us to be only one thing. And I find that deplorable,” he says at one point. Both extrovert (as conductor) and introvert (as composer), he wrote challenging symphonies and iconic stage musicals. He ran with the cultural elite, but used vehicles such as the Omnibus TV series and Young People’s Concerts to spread classical music to new audiences. He operated in one of the most conservative art forms, but was a lifelong liberal activist. What makes Cooper’s depiction of Bernstein work is that these are not seen as dichotomies, but as part of an integrated whole.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s work is flawless, and the film shifts back to color as it jumps forward to the 1960s, Bernstein now a hip éminence grise and relentless bon vivant, although his flagrant adventurism prompts Felicia to note that he’s “getting sloppy.” He has to have a fatherly chat with his daughter (a nearly unrecognizable Maya Hawke) about the nasty rumors she’s been hearing.
One minor flaw in Maestro is the rapid-fire way it introduces characters, which can be disorienting for those who don’t already know about figures such as Tom Cothran and John Gruen (thanks again, Google!). As Bernstein segues into his more dissolute era, giving speeches about death’s inevitability to students while clad in blue jeans, striped shirt, kerchief, and unfortunate beard, Felicia confronts him in the film’s most bracing scene. It’s a vicious argument (“If you’re not careful you’re going to die a lonely old queen!”) that plays out in a hotel room as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats drift by in the background.
Like that one, Cooper the director lets many lengthy scenes play out in single shots, sometimes showily, other times simply as a way to let his performers play and breathe. For the second time he has demonstrated that he is a filmmaker to contend with and not just a pretty movie star trying it on for size. He shouldn’t have to prove it again.
But the most pressing question, one that’s been on everyone’s mind since the first images from the film were released, is this: does R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” with its iconic Leonard Bernstein shout-out, make the cut? Happily, the answer is yes. And to answer the second-most pressing question: the makeup is impeccable. All that fuss about “the nose” feels completely beside the point. Sure, Bradley Cooper doesn’t look exactly like Leonard Bernstein in the role, but he looks a hell of a lot more like him than he does Bradley Cooper. Kazu Hiro, who already has Oscars for making Gary Oldman look like Winston Churchill and John Lithgow look like Roger Ailes, better make room on his shelf for one more. (Opens on Friday, Dec. 8, at the Living Room Theaters and the Salem Cinema. Debuts on Netflix on Dec. 20)
Ottessa Moshfegh has accrued a well-earned reputation as a dark-humored chronicler of alienation and unflinching subversion of reader expectations, traits that were evident in her first novel, 2015’s Eileen, which now comes to the screen courtesy of director William Oldroyd, who showed he could handle “unlikeable” female protagonists with 2016’s Lady Macbeth.
The setting is a miserable Massachusetts town in 1964, where Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive, retired-cop father (Shea Whigham) and works as an office assistant at the local boys’ prison. Having fun yet? Well, neither is Eileen, who channels her understandable ennui into an eating disorder and an excessive fixation on bodily functions.
That all changes when a new staff psychologist shows up at work. Rebecca (the Hitchcock reference is intentional) is a glamorous breath of fresh air, a juxtaposition of color and spunk against the drab environs. That she’s played by Anne Hathaway tells you much, but not all, of what you need to know. Eileen immediately falls under Rebecca’s spell, but you know what they say about never getting to know your heroes too well.
Perhaps necessarily, some of the more trenchant aspects of Eileen’s life are watered down a bit for this film adaptation. The screenplay, which Moshfegh co-wrote, also dispenses with the novel’s flashback structure, in which an older Eileen relates the story’s events from decades of distance. Losing that aspect robs the narrative of both a wistful tone and a sense of menace—after all, we know she’s going to at least make it out alive from whatever happens.
McKenzie and Hathaway are very good, however, and the plot twist that pops up in the third act is just as expertly sprung as it is on the page. With its grey, wintry mien and its dysfunctional cast of characters, Eileen could become a minor anti-holiday classic. (Opens Friday, Dec. 8 at Living Room Cinemas, the Salem Cinema, and other area theaters.)
ALSO THIS WEEK
Downwind: Which country has been the victim of the highest number of nuclear detonations? It’s not Japan, of course. The United States exploded 928 atomic bombs on its own territory, according to the documentary Downwind, the vast majority at the Nevada Test Site. But the effects of the radioactive fallout from those tests affected a much broader area, as it drifted into southern Utah and infected the water of the Shoshone Nation. (The American government reportedly timed the tests so that prevailing winds would carry the fallout away from highly populated southern California.)
Co-directors Douglas Brian Miller and Mark Shapiro have compiled effective interviews with a number of activists working to draw attention to the human cost of these tests, most tragically a meteoric rise in cancer rates in the affected areas. They got Martin Sheen to narrate, which provides gravitas, and scored interviews with Michael Douglas and (for some reason) comedian Lewis Black. The movie loses its focus after about an hour, and it’s no replacement for vintage docs such as The Day After Trinity or Radio Bikini, but there’s no such thing as too many films spotlighting the horrific actions undertaken in the name of national security during the Cold War. (Living Room Theaters, Friday through Sunday)
Immediate Family: From the makers of The Wrecking Crew comes this follow-up about another unheralded group of studio musicians who helped create some of the most memorable tunes in pop music history. Names like Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, and Steve Jordan might not draw you in, but it’s a testament to their contributions that so many huge names are willing to go on camera to testify to them. Iconic 1970s sounds from Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Phil Collins, and Jackson Browne would not have existed were it not for these dudes, and it’s a pleasure to revisit those times, for them and for us. (Salem Cinema, Tuesday, Dec. 12. Available on demand starting Friday, Dec. 15)
The Boy and the Heron: Hayao Miyazaki’s long-awaited return to filmmaking after a decade of retirement wasn’t screened for critics. (multiple theaters)
- Gremlins  (Kiggins, through Sunday)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller  (Academy, through Thursday)
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation  (Kiggins, through Sunday)
- Paths of Glory  (Eugene Art House)
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians  (Academy, through Thursday)
- Muppet Christmas Carol  (Hollywood)
- A Christmas Story  (Eugene Art House, also Wednesday)
- Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket  (Hollywood)
- Psychotronic After-School Christmas Special (Hollywood)
- The True Quest for Fabled Treasure on the Oregon Coast  (Clinton)
- MONO: Live Pilgrimage in Madrid  (Clinton)
- Mr. Soft Touch  (Kiggins)
- Ran  (Hollywood)
- Tokyo Godfathers  (Cinema 21, Eugene Art House)
- Dragon Princess  (Hollywood, 35mm)
- The Man Who Wasn’t There  (Clinton)
- The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch  (Clinton)
- Star Trek Into Darkness  (Hollywood)