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I'm not even sure "movie" is the right category for "Maestro."

It's in theaters, it's about two hours long and it features movie stars Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan. But writer/director/star Cooper's project wants to have the sort of effect music does, not movies. It's not "about" anything, the way music usually isn't. Instead, it's a series of tones, moods and impressions of the life of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.

With scenes that often begin in the middle of whatever's happening, "Maestro" doesn't attempt to define Bernstein. Was he gay? Bisexual? Who knows? Was it kindness for him to tell a huge lie to his daughter? Maybe. Did he love music more than people? Possibly.

Cooper announces music's primacy from the beginning of "Maestro," using Bernstein's compositions not so much to underscore the action as to overscore it. The music is loud, insistent, and, whereas most current composers say scores should hint at the inner lives of characters, this music is designed to tell us where to look, who to attend to, even what to think.

Take, for instance, a scene that's in black and white (all the '40s and '50s scenes are, with "Maestro" shifting to color for the '60s and beyond). A woman walks down a dark street, with bombastic music building to a crescendo when she emerges from the shadows and we see her face for the first time. It's Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre, who's about to meet Bernstein at a party, then later marry him and change his life.

"Maestro" also takes big visual swings. A Fellini-esque scene in which Felicia begs Leonard to admit he's gay takes place during the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, with a huge Snoopy floating past the window. A key conversation about their marriage takes place in the distance, so we can't see their faces. One breathless, jump-cut sequence zips them from an event to an empty theater, then watching a performance of the musical "On the Town," then becoming characters in "On the Town," then having sex. A thunderous Mahler performance in England's Ely Cathedral ignores the stunning building and gifted musicians to focus on Leonard's beatific face and wild gestures.

Most of the people the Bernsteins knew were show people and Cooper has directed the actors to behave as if they're always performing, complete with mid-Atlantic accents no one grew up with and sweeping gestures no one uses outside of a proscenium arch. That's true of Cooper's and Mulligan's performances, as well — Leonard and Felicia seem to have been the most extroverted people in history — but both actors balance that with tiny moments of sensitive observation and Cooper, in particular, vanishes into his role (the hubbub about his unusually convincing fake nose is just noise).

"Maestro" will frustrate some viewers. We learn nothing about Bernstein's childhood. There's no mention of a famously fatuous party that Tom Wolfe lampooned in "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's." We don't even find out when Bernstein died (1990).

Instead, what "Maestro" wants us to know is that Bernstein was most fully alive, was most himself, when he was making music.

*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for language and drug use.
Where: In theaters.