Lenny’s relationship with Felicia was a complicated one, yet “Maestro” rarely digs far beyond the surface. The two share a bubbly, infectious chemistry as they meet and fall in love – and Cooper the director wisely lets these scenes, and later the couple’s arguments, play out in long, single takes. The affection between them feels genuine, and Mulligan is frequently magnificent, finding avenues into her portrayal of Felicia that elevate it beyond the mere woman-behind-the-man notion. And yet, the Costa Rican-Chilean actress is often literally in Bernstein’s shadow; one image finds her standing in the wings as her husband conducts, with the exaggerated shape of him swallowing her up as if he were a monster. (Mulligan is also the beneficiary of costume designer Mark Bridges’ most exquisite fashions throughout the film.) But how does Felicia truly feel about having to share her husband with a series of men, most of them younger and fawning? She catches him kissing a party guest in the hallway of their apartment in the historic Dakota building and icily scolds him: “Fix your hair. You’re getting sloppy.” That comes close to the kind of real, raw emotion that would have given “Maestro” more heft.
Speaking of the skin-deep nature of the movie, much has been made about Cooper’s decision to wear elaborate prosthetics to make his transformation into Bernstein more complete. The prominent nose, in particular, has been a source of consternation, as Cooper is not Jewish. (Bernstein’s own children have defended the choice.) Makeup guru Kazu Hiro, who won Academy Awards for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “The Darkest Hour” and Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly for “Bombshell,” does thoroughly convincing work here, especially when Bernstein appears as a 70-year-old man at the very beginning and end of the film.
Something does happen toward the film’s conclusion, though, that’s deserving of criticism. It’s the late 1980s, and the frame has expanded to widescreen. Bernstein is driving his Jaguar convertible, blaring R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Just as he zooms into the center of the shot, lead singer Michael Stipe yells the lyric “Leonard Bernstein!” Now, maybe this is something Bernstein did in real life; he clearly thought quite highly of himself, so maybe he was so tickled to be mentioned in this capacity. But in a movie, this choice was eye-rollingly on the nose. I groaned audibly.
Bernstein took chances with his work; that’s what made him great. “Maestro” would have been stronger if it had done the same.
In theaters now. On Netflix on December 20th.