Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.
Release Date: December 20th, 2023 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Bradley Cooper Actors: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman, Maya Hawke, Gideon Glick, Matt Bomer
miss her terribly …” After Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) catches a lucky break to conduct the prestigious New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1943, his meteoric rise to fame appears destined. Along for the ride is understudy and Broadway hopeful Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), whom he meets at a party at which his sister (Sarah Silverman) is also in attendance. Via artsy scene transitions, the years and the successes pass, chronicling his musical theater career in New York, his composing, his piano playing, his teaching, and more, leading to a status as the first great American conductor – all while also shedding light on his upbringing and his personal life.
A big part of that is his sexuality, which finds itself intermittently at odds with faithfulness to a single person – particularly a woman, as his eventual marriage and children force him to stray away from an affair with clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), among others. A public image must also contend with his private desires – ones that Felicia understands and acknowledges, but can never quite feel comfortable facilitating. And his increasing indiscretions only aggravate the situation, coupled with the fame that he chooses to prioritize over his family. “I love too much; what can I say?”
From a technical standpoint, at the start, the cinematography is sharply designed like a film noir (in black and white, no less), but with an upbeat tone and fast-paced feel. It’s clearly more of a classic-musical-inspired aura, complete with giddy characters spouting rapid dialogue and exaggerated, over-the-top supporting roles doing a bit of traditional mugging, denoting the era as it transitions from Bernstein’s early career to that of his later life (which switches to color). Additionally, Cooper’s physical transformations, including the aging techniques (the makeup department deserves an award), plus his mannerisms and voice (and cadence), are fantastic; every so often, he disappears into the role, not just with his appearance but also with his performance – most notably during sequences of enthusiastic conducting (which, oddly, are some of the most striking in the film). It certainly helps that Bernstein’s mesmerizing music plays in the background of numerous scenes, reminding of how his recognizable works still persevere. And Mulligan’s turn is remarkable as well, as she’s given some of the best moments for emotional diatribes (and must also don a certain amount of makeup).
But, ultimately, Bernstein’s life isn’t depicted with (or, rather, doesn’t contain) the standard wealth of adversities often found in sweeping Hollywood biographies. He was exceptionally famous and talented and accomplished, but his story just isn’t that engaging; his history simply isn’t that cinematic, exciting, surprising, or unconventional, considering that the bulk of his dramas are merely rows with his wife or quiet denials of gossipy subjects (and a bit of drugs and vocalizations of depression). There’s no struggle to achieve; no real rise and fall. This picture may prove educational or important for audiences interested in the maestro’s career, but it doesn’t provide much entertainment value beyond the standard expectations of existing fans. At least it has something general yet nevertheless poignant to say about the consequences of deception, though no great character-shaping tragedy (none out of the ordinary, anyway) or monumental fallout must be dramatically managed. Plus, it’s much too long. “You’re getting sloppy.”
– Mike Massie