Leto Giveth, Leto Taketh Away

I was shocked—SHOCKED!—to see Jared Leto finally give the first entertaining performance of his career in House of Gucci.  He was easily the best part of Ridley Scott’s crimes-of-fashion melodrama, despite working alongside dependably entertaining co-stars like Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Al Pacino.  Out-overacting Pacino would be an impressive feat for any performer, but it’s especially staggering coming from Leto.  And yet his oblivious goofball energy is the only sign of life to be found in the film. Otherwise, House of Gucci is too conceptually silly to be so well-behaved.  It asks the audience to take its exaggerated Italian accents and vintage fashion stunts seriously for the sprawling length of a Godfather movie, when the best it has to offer is a few flashes of outrageous outfits & sitcom hijinks; so, less The Godfather and more an overlong episode of The Nanny.  In that context, there is only one knucklehead in the cast who perfectly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it), and he happens to be one of the most annoying Hollywood personalities around.

There is no other context where engaging with a Jared Leto performance is a positive, charming experience.  Because of his literal, boneheaded approach to “method acting”, Leto is more of a social terrorist than he is a professional entertainer.  His main job as an actor is to derail everyone else’s work on-set by remaining “in-character” as villainous pests, making his co-workers’ jobs as difficult as possible for no practical, discernible reason.  After months of tabloid stories about Leto blinding, starving, or gorging himself for a role, he’ll reliably put in a performance so bland & textureless that you forget he was even in the movie (i.e., Lonely Hearts, Blade Runner 2049).  In his greatest act of “method acting” terrorism to date, Leto “gifted” his Suicide Squad co-stars animal corpses, anal beads, and used condoms while “working” in-character as The Joker.  His scenes were then almost entirely cut out of the film, making it clear that the horror stories behind his performances hold a more substantial place in our cultural imagination than the actual footage of those performances.  All anyone remembers is his personal misbehavior, not his professional product. He’s effectively being paid to be an obstacle, not an actor. 

This is not true in House of Gucci.  Lady Gaga’s award-season ambitions completely overpowered Leto’s method-acting shenanigans during that production.  Gaga’s interviews about needing “a psychiatric nurse” on-set because of how far she pushed herself in her portrayal of Patrizia Gucci—or how the real-life Patrizia put a real-life curse on her as retribution for that portrayal—filled the exact role that reports of Leto’s method-acting pranks usually fill: they’re way more interesting & fun to talk about than anything she accomplishes onscreen.  Meanwhile, every single time Leto appears in his fat suit & bald cap combo as Paolo Gucci is a pure delight.  He looks ridiculous, and his personality matches, playing Paolo as an overgrown Pinocchio with a wonderfully tacky fashion sense.  I’ve never been so excited to see Jared Leto appear onscreen, knowing that every single line-delivery was going to be an absolute howler.  And yet there was no significant tabloid baggage that came with the performance besides an off-hand joke(?) about “snorting arrabbiata sauce” and having “olive oil for blood” while immersed in the role.  Gaga hogged up all the method-acting spotlight this go-round, and Leto was—against all odds—simply fun to watch.

I do not want to get into the business of becoming a Jared Leto apologist, so thank The Dark Lord for Morbius.  There was something weirdly comforting about seeing Leto return to his same old tedious self in his very next role after House of Gucci.  He is completely anonymous as Doctor Michael Morbius, the vampire superhero, delivering a lead performance just as forgettable as his fleeting appearances in movies he’s barely in.  His line-deliveries are so flat & inflectionless that you cannot distinguish when he’s telling a joke.  His only detectable facial expressions are computer-generated, signaling the emergence of an entertaining monster that the self-conflicted Morbius fights to contain under his boring, placid surface.  The only brief moment when it’s apparent what Leto brings to the role is a scene where he appears buff & shirtless, enjoying his new vampire-bat superstrength before quickly covering up, lest the audience actually gets excited about something.  He looks phenomenal for a 50-year-old, but there’s nothing else about his screen presence that could possibly impress an audience – mostly because the audience is snoring in their seats by the second act.

It’s not enough for Leto to be a bore.  For him to truly be back on his bullshit, he needs to be a bore and a nuisance, making it unnecessarily difficult for his collaborators to record his trademark tedium on film.  That’s why it’s a blessing to see Morbius director Daniel Espinosa confirm reports that Leto frequently derailed production with 45-minute bathroom breaks, remaining in-character as a physically disabled man (pre-vampire powers) between takes.  Interviewer Mike Ryan prompted Espinosa with the anecdote, “Someone told me that Jared Leto was so committed to playing Michael Morbius that even when he had to go to the bathroom, he would use his crutches and slowly limp to get to the bathroom.  But it was taking so long between for pee breaks, that a deal was made with him to get him a wheelchair so someone could wheel him there quicker and he agreed to that.”  Espinosa confirmed, “Yeah. Because I think what Jared thinks, what Jared believes, is that somehow the pain of those movements, even when he was playing normal Michael Morbius, he needed, because he’s been having this pain his whole life.”  That is the exact level of off-screen bullshit we expect from Leto: going out of his way to inconvenience his coworkers so he can deliver a flavorless, textureless performance of no consequence.  Everything is in its rightful place again; order has been restored.

Of course, not everyone is not going to agree that Leto’s affable performance in House of Gucci is superior to his dreary return-to-form in Morbius.  In fact, The Hollywood Reporter headlined its Morbius review with the blurb, “After his bizarrely cartoonish turn in ‘House of Gucci’, it’s a relief to see Jared Leto channel his lust for transformative characters into a film that’s quite literally written into the role’s DNA,” a line that was apparently written to troll me, specifically.  Some people are just determined to not have fun, and there is no hope for them.  At least we can all agree that House of Gucci was a fluke, a one-of-a-kind miracle where a Jared Leto performance was worthier of discussion than the backstage circumstances of its production.  And so Morbius was a much-needed cooldown & career re-set, so that we don’t get too excited about seeing another fun, “bizarrely cartoonish turn” from him.  Leto giveth, and Leto taketh away.

-Brandon Ledet

A Star is Born (2018)

I was almost an hour into A Star is Born when I realized Oscar Season had truly started, because it was then that a very familiar, mildly unpleasant feeling washed over me: I was pressured into watching a competently made, exceptionally performed 3-star drama opening weekend because of its value in the discourse, not because I was especially excited to see it. This fourth iteration of the classic Hollywood tale of fame, jealousy, and tragic romance is a decent movie packed with great performances, one that’s destined to sour in audiences’ collective memory as it’s over-praised in the next four months of Oscars lead-up. Great effort will be made to land Lady Gaga a (perhaps deserved) Academy Award for Best Actress and Bradley Cooper a (not at all deserved) Best Director statue; and the best possible outcome in either case is that they fall just short of winning, so that they don’t suffer significant critical blowback for being overdiscussed & overexamined. Frankly, I find this stretch of the cinematic year to be the most exhausting & unfulfilling, a feeling that hit me about halfway into this totally okay, already overpraised melodrama.

Whether you’ve seen this story play out before with Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, or (if you’re a thousand years old) Janet Gaynor in the lead, the basic narrative structure of A Star is Born is too familiar to require recounting in a review. The most interesting creative decision Bradly Cooper makes as this version’s auteurist voice is in acknowledging that familiarity by allowing his players to color as freely as they wish within those lines. The entire film boasts an improv looseness in its performances, which are freed up by the rigid structure of its narrative to search for tossed-off, believably natural tones. Drunken (and deliberately unflattering) conversations between Cooper & Gaga’s leads in the film’s early, pre-fame stretch are especially impressive in their immediacy & cavalier looseness. Domestic home life exchanges of overlapping dialogue lovingly shouted between Gaga & Andrew Dice Clay (playing Gaga’s father) also land with a pleasant naturalism, even recalling the similar home life snapshots of the Oscar-winning Cher classic Moonstruck. Unfortunately, that exceptional-performances-contained-by-an-unexceptional-premise dynamic wears thin by the time the film demands that you emotionally commit to its melodrama, especially when Cooper pretends he has something useful to say about that authenticity instead of just letting it be.

Part of the reason I could already feel myself getting exhausted with Oscar Season discourse halfway into A Star is Born is that I was preemptively starting to have very strong, negative takes on how it handles its music industry subject matter, where the material isn’t distinct or daring enough to support that passionate of a reaction. I found the dichotomy Cooper establishes between meaningful, “Authentic” rock-country Americana vs. supposedly frivolous, high-gloss pop music to be gross, especially since the gruff nostalgia & macho guitar noodling that was supposed to stand for good, Authentic art is not at all my cup of tea. Lady Gaga’s drag bar Edith Piaf covers & high-production SNL performances of pop songs about butts struck me as far superior art when compared to the singer-songwriter ballads Cooper’s character “elevates” her to when they collab as a romantic & creative couple, which is the exact opposite of what the film was attempting to convey. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry with the movie’s macho, old-fashioned attacks on the high-gloss, traditionally femme corners of pop music (where Gaga cut her teeth as a performer in real life) for being in-Authentic, until I had a post-screening epiphany: it ultimately doesn’t matter. The movie is too modest in its artistic goals & achievements to justify any real, substantial umbrage; I was just forming a strong take on the subject because of its Importance in the discourse.

Someone with a much kinder ear for the proto-country Dad-rock Cooper & Gaga perform as a duo in the film will likely have a much easier time swallowing its attacks on the Authenticity of high-gloss pop music than I did. Even if not, the improv looseness of the film’s early, pre-popshaming stretch (including brief appearances from RuPaul’s Drag Race vets Shangela & Willam) is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches. It’s just much easier to enjoy the film for those performance-specific touches once you divorce it from the context of Oscars talk. A Star is Born is a good movie boosted by excellent performances, but also one hindered by more than a few thematic disappointments (the pop music patronizing is where I personally fixated & soured, but there’s plenty more grossness to pick at elsewhere). The more it’s lauded as the cinematic achievement of the year, something that absolutely must be seen by all, the worse its memory will fare in the ether. That is, until this year’s Oscars statues are doled out and the merits of the performances are all we remember. And then the whole cycle starts over again next October, if not earlier, with the first high-profile melodrama of the Fall. Honestly, I’m already a little tired of that movie too.

-Brandon Ledet