A Star is Born

*paragraphs with spoilers have been noted below

I was entranced by the trailer for A Star is Born, and the subsequent glowing reviews made me eager to watch Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga bring this story to life. Not having watched any of the previous iterations of this movie (or being aware of them, quite honestly), I was able to watch it with a blank slate and no comparisons.

As a preliminary matter, there was a nagging feeling of annoyance that I had to first shake – the fact that Bradley Cooper, a white, male actor with no directing experience, was basically handed a big-budget movie for his directorial debut. It’s a bitter pill to swallow knowing that he got an opportunity denied to so many struggling directors, many from marginalized groups. But that’s a whole other story for another article, and I pushed that aside, determined to enjoy the movie with an open mind.

Two hours later, I walked out feeling confused and torn. While I can’t deny that I was moved, the multiple concurrent storylines felt disjointed and I struggle to figure out what the movie’s overall message really was.

The story opens with Jackson Maine, an ageing singer privately battling addiction, who discovers the raw singing talents of Ally. After (literally) pushing her to perform during one of his concerts, she becomes an overnight sensation, and climbs a path to fame that soon eclipses Jackson’s. The movie’s parallel storyline follows Ally and Jackson’s tumultuous relationship, impacted by both Ally’s fame and Jackson’s addictions.

A Star is Born: a movie with fantastic acting, but ultimately lacking in focus and a message

The acting in this movie was undeniably fantastic. Cooper nails the nuances of a weathered rock star to perfection – the calm, chilled-out stage demeanour, the casual squinting at the crowd and the relaxed way he speaks to fans. His guttural southern accent and sunburnt face completed the look with effortless accuracy. Gaga is almost unrecognizable as a fresh-faced ingenue who quickly adapts to her success. The delightful surprise breakout of this movie was Ramon, Ally’s enthusiastic best friend who introduced her to Jackson.

Aspects of the story require a certain level of blind acceptance – is it really plausible that Jackson Maine could have just gone to a bar alone with no security, without being recognized? Why was Ally’s initial reaction upon meeting Jackson backstage so normal and blasé (no chance in hell I’d be that casual if I met a celebrity)? And why exactly did she get so angry and punch a drunk guy who wanted to take a photo with Jackson at the bar? Was that supposed to showcase her tough, edgy side? Admittedly, nothing turns on these minor gaps; but I couldn’t help but feel that the story didn’t quite flow at times.

And while I’m being nitpicky (*puts on Movie Nerd glasses*), certain scenes felt weirdly filmed and edited. Notable examples include when Ally woke up to find Jackson in her room (anyone else get major Twilight flashbacks with that scene?), and when Ally and Jackson visited Jackson’s childhood home only to discover that it had been sold. I suspect the editing was meant to have a raw, indie-movie feel, but it just came off badly done. A learning curve attributed to a first-time director? Probably. But what’s interesting is that Cooper hasn’t suffered much criticism for any aspect of his directing—proving the old adage that a *certain demographic* of society continues to benefit from a wide margin for error.

The love between Ally and Jackson was passionate and intense, but quickly turned toxic as Jackson sunk deeper into his addiction. We first saw glimpses of his unsupportive and self-destructive behaviour when Ally told him that Rez wanted to be her producer, and Jackson responded by smearing dessert on her face – an act that Ally, inexplicably, was able to laugh off. It was hard to watch her be so continually steadfast in her love and support for Jackson despite his screw-ups, with his drunken behaviour spoiling multiple career milestones for her.

Their relationship highlights important questions – how long should you stay with someone who is on a downward spiral? How many allowances should you make for the fact that they suffer from an addiction and as a result, might hurt you? How do you determine whether someone is simply using their addiction as an excuse to be awful? How do you walk away from someone who isn’t getting better – and more to the point, should you?

These questions seemed easy enough for Ally, who remained by Jackson’s side and gave new meaning to the notion that love is blind. But I was left with the uneasy feeling that this movie normalized an unhealthy, toxic relationship, with Ally continually giving and Jackson continually self-destructing.

[spoiler alert] As for *that ending* — I didn’t like it, plain and simple. Maybe it’s my own sensitivity, maybe it’s the fact that it’s not what Ally deserved, but it felt like the ending was just thrown in there for maximum dramatic impact. While it’s clear that Jackson is grappling with deep-rooted demons, the movie doesn’t do justice to the complex world of mental health. We don’t find out about Jackson’s prior suicide attempt until over halfway through the movie, and only through one brief scene. His subsequent decision to end his life, and so soon after leaving rehab, seemed like a sudden leap, and the grandma in me worries that this movie romanticizes a serious mental health issue rather than raise awareness to it.

Suicide is a heavy topic to explore, and it’s incumbent on a director to do so thoughtfully and with purpose. In my opinion, a few scattered scenes don’t cut it, and the progression of this storyline is at best rushed, and at worst, irresponsible.

[end of spoiler]

A secondary storyline that felt incomplete was Ally’s career path and her gradual shift to mainstream pop music. As her success grows, we see her change, literally and figuratively; she dyes her hair, follows through with her dance classes, changes her music style, and replaces her previously barefaced visage with makeup, even while lounging at home. Jackson takes issue with these changes, and first takes it out on her manager Rez. But following Ally’s pop-infused SNL performance, Jackson also lashes out at Ally in a particularly memorable scene. He berated and mocked her for no longer having something to say before finally hitting her when he knows it hurts by calling her ugly.

His contempt for the world of mainstream pop, while perhaps well-intentioned, didn’t exactly scream “supportive boyfriend”. Ally herself seemed quite happy with the way her career was progressing, and certainly didn’t indicate any concerns with the new direction her music had taken. It may not have been Jackson’s cup of tea, but his reaction was wildly disproportionate.

I suspect viewers were meant to believe that Ally was forced into the music industry’s Evil Pop Machine, and Jackson simply wanted her to stay true to herself. But it seemed to me that Ally was perfectly content to have “sold out” and embarked in a new direction. If Rez was to be believed, it was Ally herself who chose her new hair color, implying that she had at least some semblance of control over her career. If she happily chose to sing vapid songs, was that really so terrible?

Her excitement over hosting SNL and her overall success should have been enough for Jackson and it felt paternalistic and controlling of him to dictate what music was “worthy” and what wasn’t. If he did have concerns, he could have broached the topic far more effectively; having an addiction is not an excuse to act shitty. While he kept telling Ally to stay true to herself, it seems that in reality, he just wanted her to stay true to who *he* wanted her to be, making him no better than the music industry producers he was so disdainful of.

I walked away feeling that the film packed in too many storylines without fully fleshing out any – Ally’s rise to fame, Jackson’s mental health and addiction, and the tumultuous relationship between the two. Awkwardly shoehorned into this already overcrowded mix was Jackson’s family drama and hearing loss. Everything was inextricably linked – Ally’s success certainly aggravated Jackson’s downward spiral, which in turn caused relationship turmoil. But the stories felt incomplete, possibly because of an overly ambitious first-time director, and the movie on the whole felt like it had no message.

Was this a cautionary tale about fame? It didn’t feel like it, as Ally seemed to embrace it, and Jackson’s demons seemed to ultimately stem from his childhood, not his career. Was it to raise awareness about the evils of addiction and mental illness? Possibly — except it didn’t explore that story enough for it to be meaningful, and what it did show (addiction is Bad and mental illness is Very Bad) could hardly be said to be groundbreaking. Was it to demonstrate how artists have to trade authenticity for fame? Perhaps – but it’s a trite, overdone message and I had a hard time believing that Ally was unhappy with her career direction.

For a movie that continually mentioned “having something to say”, it doesn’t actually seem to nail down its own message. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, and certainly left me with a lot to think about. But the hype and glowing reviews feel disproportionate – it’s a good movie but with some undeniably missing pieces.

Crazy Rich Asians

A couple disclaimers about Crazy Rich Asians. I haven’t read the book, and those who have will likely have a different take on this movie. I also don’t generally enjoy rom-coms (Bridget Jones’ Diary is not a rom-com and I will die on this hill).

All the same, I couldn’t wait to see this movie. As a woman of colour who rarely sees any representation in mainstream media, seeing a rom-com fronted by an all-Asian cast was a breath of fresh air. It’s the first Hollywood movie in 25 years with an Asian cast — but I was too young to have seen  its predecessor, The Joy Luck Club. For most movie-goers under 30, this is the first Hollywood movie with a cast of this composition — and for some, the first time they’re seeing a cast that they can finally identify with.

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Crazy Rich Asians: a wonderfully fun, opulent ride.

I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is that this movie is a romantic comedy, a genre traditionally dominated by the Kate Hudsons and Matthew McConaugheys of the world. The beautiful blonde magazine editor would always fall in love with the handsome white sports writer, and if producers were really looking to push the envelope, they’d maybe cast a brunette Anne Hathaway-type. Any Asian characters, if they were cast at all, were quirky computer nerds with purple hair– often scrawny, never sexy.

And for all the trailblazing that The Joy Luck Club did, any fan of Amy Tan’s novels will tell you that her stories aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, and The Joy Luck Club is no exception. Hollywood seems to have a particular fascination with ethnically diverse movies being depressing tales of human suffering (see also: Slumdog Millionaire, Memoirs of a Geisha). “The more suffering, the better” seemed to be the mantra of producers who cast people of colour (cue scene of a poor person walking in rural India/China/South America, ideally with a baby in their arms).

Enter Crazy Rich Asians, a fun, light-hearted movie that proves Asians can indeed be funny and sexy enough to lead a rom-com set in a cosmopolitan city. While some have critiqued the fluffy nature of its storyline, I think that’s exactly what makes this movie so groundbreaking. It reveals the little-known secret that people of colour are Normal People — they date, have kooky foibles and can pull off laugh-out-loud scenes just like white people! 

The movie follows Rachel Chu, a New York economics professor who is invited by her boyfriend, Nick Young, to a wedding in his homeland Singapore. En route, Rachel learns of his family’s immense wealth, and faces difficulties as she adjusts to rich-people politics and the steely family matriarch, Eleanor Young (played by the incredible Michelle Yeoh, who carried the Tiger Mom role to perfection).

The movie showcases incredible fashion, decadent homes and over-the-top parties. Nothing is too expensive or too flashy, and one of the opening scenes shows Nick’s cousin Astrid casually purchasing earrings priced at over $1 million.

The storyline itself has that slightly rushed pace that is so often seen in movies adapted from books, and leaps from one plot point to another without fully fleshing out the issues. One example is the cattiness towards Rachel during a bachelorette trip. A jilted ex-girlfriend of Nick’s effectively gets into Rachel’s head, and a comment made by Rachel about Nick being a “great catch” was twisted to make her seem like a gold digger. The scene with the dead fish in Rachel’s room, captioned with “Catch this, gold-digging bitch” is gut-wrenching to watch, but Rachel rises above the pettiness. While at the wedding,  we see her confidently walking past the same girls, who stare at her in captivation.

I assume we’re meant to revel in Rachel’s triumphant power move, but this subplot on the whole just felt rushed. The movie provided no context into why there was such animosity towards Rachel, and the Mean Girls-esque storyline felt too neatly wrapped up at the end.

Similarly, the dynamics between Rachel and Eleanor felt choppy and glossed over. This was the storyline I was personally most interested in — how would an ultra-rich, traditional Asian mother take to an average Chinese-American girl (albeit an accomplished one)? There was of course, the basic concern that Rachel wasn’t good enough for Nick. But we also see Eleanor quietly battling feelings of loneliness; the passing comments made about her husband imply that he’s a workaholic who’s constantly away on business, and his character never actually makes an appearance in this movie (something that I’m wondering will be explained in the follow-up movies).

The plan had always been for Nick to return home to Singapore to take over the company, allowing his father to take a step back. Nick’s decision to stay in New York because of Rachel simultaneously deprived Eleanor of having both her son and husband back in her life, a realization that couldn’t be easy for her. Further causing tension between Rachel and Eleanor is the cross-generational gap, with Eleanor disapproving of the American “follow your passion” way of life.

With all of these complex layers, the Rachel/Eleanor dynamic could have been a movie on its own, and I was eager to see how the movie tackled these issues. But I walked away feeling that things were too rushed and too conveniently settled between the two women. The pacing felt clunky, and showed Eleanor being seemingly friendly towards Rachel at their first meeting, hostile during dumpling-making and then outright vindictive during the wedding where she drops the bombshell about Rachel’s mother. After Rachel’s speech during their game of Mahjong, Eleanor has a slightly-too-abrupt change of heart, and gives Nick her blessing to marry Rachel.

Again, this quickened pacing is common in movies adapted from books. Even the most skilled director can’t effectively include every detail and nuance when condensing a novel into a two-hour film (and for that reason, I feel lucky that I don’t have the book to compare this movie to).

Despite the brevity of this subplot, it did give audiences what was probably the most powerful scene in the movie. After making dumplings together, Eleanor follows Rachel onto a staircase and gives a coldly impassioned speech before finally telling her “You will never be enough… you are not one of us”. It’s a chilling moment that feels all too realistic and relatable.

Overall, the movie does a wonderful job of telling a fun story, introducing us to hilarious and loveable characters (special shoutout to the delightful characters played by Ken Jeong and Awkwafina) and imparting general feel-good vibes.

The movie added depth and balanced its breezy tone with a few heavier scenes and storylines. We see Astrid ending her marriage with her disgruntled husband, who felt insecure about her breadwinner status and had an affair. I almost wanted to cheer when the normally soft-spoken Astrid tells her husband “It’s not my job to make you feel like a man. I can’t make you something you’re not”.

And in one poignant scene,  Astrid walks into the wedding with her grandmother, who rarely attended social functions but spared Astrid the embarrassment of attending alone. Astrid thanked her grandmother, who gently reminded her “family doesn’t say thank you”. It’s a beautiful moment that showcases the close relationships in ethnic families (in stark contrast to the white family stereotypes of forcing kids to move out at 18, and placing elderly relatives in group homes).

Close familial ties are also shown again in a tearjerking scene where Rachel’s mom visits  Rachel in Singapore, after hearing about the wedding fiasco. Rachel’s surprise and relief at seeing her mother is palpable and the teary embrace between the two can’t help but tug at your heartstrings.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true rom-com without some element of cheesiness. In a far-too-drawn-out scene during the wedding, the bride walks down the aisle in slow-motion. Despite the attention-grabbing venue, complete with a waterfall aisle, Rachel and Nick tearfully stare at one another. The scene went on a titch too long, inciting an eye-roll from yours truly. Similarly, (spoiler alert), the airplane proposal lands squarely on cliche rom-com territory.

All that being said, this movie is truly so much more than a romantic comedy. It cleverly incorporates power dynamics, family relations, heartache and comedy to bring a story that’s an absolute joy to watch. The massive success of Crazy Rich Asians has hopefully laid the groundwork for better representation in mainstream media and has answered the age-old question of whether Asians can star in a successful Hollywood movie.