We love a love story. *Correction, we love a tragic love story. And this weekend, we were lucky to get two. In one, aging alt-country-rock superstar Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and budding siren-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) are star crossing lovers. We watch them come together in a blaze of passion and relevance before one crashes back to Earth under the irrevocable gravitational pull of addiction. Then, we cry.
The other tale of note here involves the stars in a more literal sense, though I believe it’s a more reasoned and healthy take on romantic partnerships. In Venom, the titular space parasite infects disgraced investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). The pair go on to eat a few people and save Earth from an alien invasion. Venom is a parasite who becomes a partner, who crosses space and time–and yes, the stars–to find a home inside Eddie Brock. Ultimately, they decide to only eat bad people. See–compromise–that’s at the heart of love.
We’re going to be talking about A Star Is Born for a little while. It’ll be a featured player at every major award show. So it’s important to get one thing straight. A Star Is Born is a cautionary tale. This isn’t #relationshipgoals.
Because here’s the cake–or as Venom would put it, the “eyes, lungs, pancreas. So many snacks, so little time.” Eddie Brock and Venom have a healthier relationship than Jack and Ally.
A Star Is Born is a musical. We know this because it seems to take place in New Jersey, Arizona, LA, Nashville, and New York all at once and a musical act like The Drive-by-Truckers is a huge superstars that sells out ten thousand seat pavilions and headlines festivals.
Venom is a comic book movie. We know this because it has a mid-credits scene that made me Google “what the heck is a Carnage.”
But both movies set out to explore a Difficult Man with a habit of self-sabotage. Both men have a disease. Jack is an alcoholic and a drug addict. Eddie has an actual parasite, err a Symbiote. (Venom hates the word “parasite.”) But even before Venom and Eddie meet-cute in the Life Foundation labs, Eddie’s already wrecked his life up.
Eddie Brock had it pretty good. He was engaged to Michelle Williams and they had the means to live in metro San Francisco–Zillow at your own risk. He had The Brock Report–think Vice meets Last Week Tonight. The film’s gears start clicking when Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed)–think Elon Musk’s evil twin–needed a PR shine, he called Brock’s network for a 60 Minutes-type “how awesome am I?”
Eddie’s instructions are pretty clear–softballs. But Eddie also has a choice. He could do what Drake, his network, and his fiance want. He could lob softballs like he has money on the other team. Or he could do his job–which he ultimately does.
The first thing we see Jackson Maine do in A Star Is Born is throwback a handful of pills with a drink. More pressing, Jackson Maine has degenerative hearing loss. And he refuses to wear ear plugs. (His case is a bit clearer.)
These are movies about people trying to live in the world, with varying levels of success. These are movies about people with crippling insecurities and voices in their head, whose vocation covers as a job. Eddie and Jackson have something to say about the world they’re living in. And there’s a price even steeper than the San Francisco housing market.
When Jackson Maine stumbles into a drag bar (his limo was out of booze), he maybe finds a way out. He meets Ally. He tells her to call him Jack. She sings him her song. He brings her up onto the stage at his next gig to sing it.
We should note that early on in their relationship, Ally tells her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) that Jackson’s a drunk. Her father presses that this could be her chance to breakthrough. Ally’s not an idiot.
But Jack gives Ally the platform and push she needs to kick start her career. So yeah, we should note that the power dynamics in this relationship are a little off.
And as soon as Ally’s career starts to take off, and the power dynamic shift, Jack is dependent on Ally. And he does not handle it well. Jack dishes explicit emotional abuse based on power and control. A Star Is Born frames Ally’s commercial success through Jack’s eyes. We see her lip-synced performance of the butt song “Why Did You Do That?” from his vantage in the audience. The horror of … “she’s sold out” flash across his eyes.
Next thing you know, Jack is drinking his mornings away again. He confronts Ally while she’s taking a bath. A fight ensues. She mocks his drinking. He reminds her he’ll always be honest with her and then calls her ugly. He makes her feel like she’s selling out because pop music is apparently inauthentic.
My guy Venom, I must admit, is occasionally guilty of physical abuse–in that he’s slowly eating Eddie’s organs from the inside and threatens to gobble up his liver if they don’t find some tasty criminals to eat. But no one’s perfect!
Overwhelmed by his own pathos, Jack ends up sleeping on the street one night, just like his compatriot Eddie Brock. Dave Chappelle’s character in Venom–just kidding it’s A Star Is Born but how awesome would that be–finds Jack and dishes out his vision of domestic bliss.
“I don’t know … you know it’s like … I don’t know, it’s like you float out … you float out to sea and then one day you find a port. Say I’m gonna stay here for a few days. Few days becomes a few years. And then you forgot where you were going in the first place. And then you realize, you don’t really give a shit where you was going, because you like where you’re at.”
But Ally isn’t a way out. She’s a lighthouse–not a port. And no one can solve Jackson’s problems for him. And as evocative as A Star Is Born Is, at its center is a toxic relationship.
Is there anything in Venom as awesome as Lady Gaga’s performance? No, though Riz Ahmed is really, really good. Will Venom make you cry? Probably not.
A Star Is Born believes that to have something to say, you have to be damaged. You have to have some demons. Venom is a literal space demon who likes to snack on organs. But ultimately, Venom decides to betray his fellow-Symbiotes and help Eddie defend Earth. Eddie asks the pertinent question (it’s his job after all). Uhh, why are you doing this?
Venom’s response is quite touching. He explains how he’s his world’s version of Eddie–a loser. And that he kinda likes it here. And, well, he likes Eddie and that they’re a good team. He’s had a lot of hosts before but none who fit quite like Eddie. Venom, against all odds, has found his port.