Home Feature news 'Nightmare Alley' is derailed by Bradley Cooper

‘Nightmare Alley’ is derailed by Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper is a dashing and talented man, who has wielded his unique charisma into a string of terrific movie performances in everything from Silver Linings Playbook to A Star Is Born to The Hangover and Guardians of the Galaxy. What the 46-year-old Hollywood hunk cannot do; however, is convincingly play a young man. Yet over the course of Nightmare Alley’s first act, Cooper’s anti-hero Stanton Carlisle is called, “kid,” “pup,” and “young buck,” as if he’s a fresh-faced farm boy. It’s not just jarring, but also telling of the blindspot Guillermo del Toro has at the center of his new star-stuffed noir.

Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley follows a down-on-his-luck drifter, who stumbles into a carnival looking for work. Stanton (Cooper) is swiftly shown the ropes by a leering barker (Willem Dafoe). Then, he finds a job — and makeshift family — with a fortune teller (Toni Collette) and her drunkard husband (David Strathairn). But behind his pretty smile, Stanton harbors a ruthless ambition to have an act of his own, far away from the sawdust and gore of the geek show. This drive scores him a blushing bride (Rooney Mara) and an upscale gig, performing mentalism at a swanky metropolitan club. But his greed and pride could prove his ruin once he crosses paths with a seductive psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett). 


Credit: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studio

Over two-and-a-half hours, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley offers an indulgent character study to explore the question of what makes a man. Running from a dark past, Stanton is desperate for a fresh start. He strategizes and steals to build a life of his own, but he struggles to escape the long shadow of his cruel father and his neglectful mother. He’ll cling to a string of father stand-ins, seeking guidance and validation. Then, Dr. Lilith Ritter, becomes not just a lust object, but an older woman whose approval he lusts for even more than he does her body. The femme fatale doctor puts some of this into perspective during sessions in her lavish office. Of course, men in their forties have Mommy Issues and fallout from childhood trauma. So, this all could have worked even if del Toro and Kim Morgan’s script had just let Cooper’s character be middle-aged. The problem comes when we’re supposed to believe he’s some young and innocent naif.


This isn’t Simon Rex in “Red Rocket” or Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog.” It’s more Ben Platt in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

It’s far easier to buy a twenty-something being clueless about how the world works than it is a forty-something, much less one with the sharp glint in Cooper’s eye. It’s too against type to believe Cooper would be a rube, and it’s flat-out absurd to believe he’s as young as the characters take him to be. He’s treated as if barely out of boyhood, constantly being lectured about the ways of the wicked world. Perhaps del Toro tries to compensate by casting other characters as older too, including 33-year-old Mara, who plays the virginal ingenue of the first act. Meanwhile, Cooper gives an aw-shucks earnestness to early scenes. But this isn’t Simon Rex in Red Rocket or Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. It’s moreBen Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. It’s a gamble that just doesn’t pay off.

Bradley Cooper has a blindfold on while onstage in "Nightmare Alley."


Credit: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studio

Stanton is meant to be a mystery to the audience. Key details of his actions are purposefully left out of frame, so we might wonder whether he’s a victim of bad luck or a villain. If there were ambiguity in his actions, Nightmare Alley might be suspenseful. But Stanton’s facade of naivete doesn’t work in the smirking gaze of Cooper. So, we must just wait and wait and wait for Stanton’s wickedness to reveal itself, knowing all the while it’s inevitable. Along the way, del Toro will relish in painterly close-ups of his beautiful stars. He will lounge in scenes set in sumptuously art deco production designs and richly realized costumes. Such nostalgic indulgences are alluring. But without a compelling protagonist, this grandeur can’t make up for the movie being achingly boring. 

Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli stand in a wrestling ring in "Nightmare Alley."


Credit: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studio

It’s a shame about Cooper, who not only stars but also produced alongside del Toro. He’s not a bad actor; he’s just a bad fit. So despite his efforts, he undermines the cast members who sink their teeth into the flesh and blood of this lifeless drama. Bemused and flirty, Collette shines. Smiling like a goblin, Dafoe is a deranged delight. Warmly paternal yet pitiful, Strathairn is engaging, while the likes of Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, and Tim Blake Nelson give spark and color. Best of all is Blanchett, who is a vision glamorous and ghoulish. Yet for all these tempting sideshow attractions, the lackluster main event of Nightmare Alley doesn’t feel worth the price of admission. 

Nightmare Alley opens in theaters on Dec. 17. 

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