Film reviewDespite the big schnoz, film doesn't probe Bernstein the Jew

Bradley Cooper’s ‘Maestro’ shows bravura, but reveals little about Leonard Bernstein

In select theaters now and out on Netflix Dec. 20, film is a technical masterpiece but rarely scratches below the surface, reserving its best insights for Bernstein’s wife Felicia

  • Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
    Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
  • Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
    Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
  • Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
    Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
  • Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
    Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
  • Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
    Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in 'Maestro.' (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

Unless you’re already familiar with classical music in the 20th century, most who walk into “Maestro” (or choose to watch it on Netflix when it’s released on December 20) will only know that composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was gay, Jewish, and brilliant.

Director, producer, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper pours his heart and soul into “Maestro,” his film about Bernstein and wife Felicia Montealegre, and yet when the credits roll, audiences will likely still be left with those same three descriptors devoid of any depth or context. “Maestro” almost turns Bernstein into an afterthought behind what Cooper wants to show the audience in terms of his skill as an actor and director.

And Cooper’s skills are undeniably formidable; yet it’s a shame that here he can’t seem to find a deeper angle to his central figure. The film’s best aspect doesn’t come from Cooper as Bernstein, but Carey Mulligan as Felicia, a woman who gives up her hopes and dreams to support her husband’s ambitions.

Although the film’s title is “Maestro” and most people know the name Bernstein, Cooper’s movie is really about marriage. Moreover, it’s about the sacrifices that women, in this case Felicia, have to make at the altar of their husbands’ dreams. The film mostly covers the entirety of Leonard and Felicia’s marriage with a little bit of prologue and epilogue for Leonard, who outlived his wife by about 12 years.

The best thing to be said about “Maestro,” as well as Cooper’s eye as a director, is that he has a great well of empathy for women tethered to self-destructive and selfish men. Like with his previous movie, “A Star Is Born,” Cooper’s deepest fascination isn’t with the man, but with a woman who could find a way to love such a broken individual. It’s not that Cooper’s women are saints who suffer silently, but that they have to take on an unheralded duty to shelter a man’s image. It’s not simply the saying “Behind every great man there’s a great woman,” but rather, “How does that great man end up obscuring that great woman?”

This is what makes “Maestro” particularly frustrating because it seems like Cooper’s deeper affinities lie with Felicia. At that point, why not make the movie about her? The answer, sadly, is that it’s easier to get financing for a film about one of the greatest composers of all time than it is to get money for one about his wife.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in ‘Maestro.’ (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

And still, Cooper seems reluctant to push beneath Bernstein’s surface. He acknowledges Bernstein as flawed, but only in superficial ways that never lose the audience’s affinity. Bernstein sleeps around with men, but the movie gives him an out because we know that the world would not have accepted an openly gay man during the majority of Bernstein’s life. Even Felicia says that Bernstein’s greatest flaw isn’t that he loves her too little, but that he loves everyone too much.

What’s more, this emphasis on flattery fails to illuminate anything about Bernstein beyond his inherent charm and work ethic. Much has been made about Cooper putting on a fake nose to play the Jewish Bernstein as if this were “Jew-face,” but Bernstein simply had a big schnoz. What’s more frustrating is that “Maestro” doesn’t seem particularly interested in Bernstein’s Jewishness. The movie covers Bernstein’s life from ages 25 to 70, and I would be hard-pressed to tell you how being Jewish impacted Bernstein’s life, if at all. Perhaps being Jewish wasn’t central to Bernstein’s life, but if that’s the case, it would be interesting to at least know why, and how he considered his Jewish heritage, especially as a massive celebrity of the second half of the 20th century.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in ‘Maestro.’ (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

Cooper probes slightly deeper into Bernstein’s homosexuality, but even here, the film feels a bit dry. We’re given the implication that Bernstein has a deeper love for his clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) that society won’t let them consummate, but there’s little texture to their relationship. Oppenheim stands in more for what exists outside of Bernstein’s success, a relationship he can never have no matter how much he accomplishes because of American homophobia. But beyond Oppenheim, Bernstein’s homosexual exploits seem only to exist to wear away at Felicia’s resolve as she feels (correctly) that his infidelity demeans both her and their children.

For all of Cooper’s energy behind the camera, he can never escape these kinds of obvious, basic plot beats from the script he co-wrote with screenwriter and producer Josh Singer. The film’s biggest set piece, a six-minute and 16-second conducting performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony,” highlights all of the film’s strengths and flaws in a single scene. Cooper says he spent six years learning to conduct this six-minute scene, and visually, the scene is stunning. As a performance, Cooper is astounding and completely credible as Bernstein. But narratively, the scene feels largely hollow.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in ‘Maestro.’ (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

In broad strokes, it lets us know that Bernstein has beat back his demons to reach an artistic crescendo. But for the viewer, we remain at a loss. Why is this great conducting? What was happening in classical music at the time? How is Bernstein better here as a conductor than he was a decade earlier? In essence, what is the scene doing?

Too often, “Maestro” is a succession of these ornate, empty shells that dazzle us with technique, but have nothing deeper beyond the craftsmanship.

It’s only as the picture starts to wind down that it comes to its strongest aspect, which is Felicia. Felicia has spent the majority of her life being overshadowed by her husband (figuratively and literally, as Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is gorgeous but rarely subtle), and the tragedy as she starts to succumb to lung cancer is that she never got to shine. Arguably the tragedy for both characters is that they never got to be their complete selves, with Felicia taking a backseat to Leonard’s career and Leonard having to hide who he really was because of society’s prejudices. And yet the Felicia stuff hits harder because while society is now more accepting of homosexual lifestyles, it still largely expects wives to make their desires secondary to their husbands’ ambitions.

The film’s greatest insights are reserved not for Bernstein, but for Felicia. To Cooper’s credit, it seems like he’s trying to put Leonard and Felicia on equal footing and make this a story about their marriage rather than Bernstein’s accomplishments. But those accomplishments provide the backbone of the story’s structure, so rather than feeling like an equal partner, Felicia’s story becomes reactive. She exists as the fallout from Bernstein’s actions. She’s the echo in the chamber hall after the instruments stop playing.

We may not learn anything unexpected or insightful from “Maestro,” but at least it seeks to bring Felicia out of the shadows, if only for a moment.

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