9:00 am EDT, December 12, 2018

‘Vox Lux’ movie review: Natalie Portman goes for broke as unhinged pop star

Like a more sinister A Star Is Born, the sophomore feature from Brady Corbet chronicles a young woman’s rise to pop super-stardom and puts fame in the twenty-first century under the microscope.

Vox Lux (or Vox Lux: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, which is supposedly the full title) is split into two distinct halves as it traces the career trajectory of young pop star Celeste, played by Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s Raffey Cassidy in the movie’s first half, which takes place from 1999 through 2001. The film begins with a prologue, featuring a deeply unsettling and unnerving school shooting which Celeste ends up surviving.

Out of the tragedy, she composes and performs a song to memorialize the event, which captures the attention of a music producer and launches her fledgling singing career. With this opening, the movie suggests America’s school shooting problem has become so commonplace that from a tragedy such as this, someone’s fame can be birthed without anyone batting an eye.

The movie continues this line of thinking as it places pop stardom alongside acts of mass terrorism. The final moment of the first half hints at the events of 9/11, and then the second half opens in 2017 with yet another terrorist attack, a shooting on a European beach. Corbet has set up a thesis here, and it’s an intriguing one with notions of toxic notoriety and senseless fame.

For example, the shooters wear masks resembling masks worn in one of Celeste’s earlier music videos, suggesting a negative connection. However, every time an idea like this is introduced, Corbet never follows through to properly navigate what he presents to the table.

Especially when presenting such graphic violence as this, and certainly as the launching point of the entire movie, there has to be a good reason for it. Unfortunately it never really comes. You can dig for the meaning, but it always feels like reaching, and what might be really left is a glossy, artistic surface — but it’s at least an appealing surface. The direction from Corbet is undeniably impeccable with stylistic flourishes, such as extravagant credit sequences and grand narration from Willem Dafoe, outlining the proceedings in pompous language.

The problem is that, while he posits this as a major work, it never feels like one, and it just makes you hope for the feature he makes that actually will be a major work. Corbet has proven himself a talented filmmaker, between this and his debut Childhood of a Leader, but for both it seemed he needs to discover the right subject matter and material.

As for the Natalie Portman of it all, she doesn’t appear until the second half of the running time as the grown-up, 31-year-old Celeste in 2017, now a full-blown pop star akin to Lady Gaga. Donning a glitter jumpsuit and silver hair, she delivers sci-fi glam on stage, but off-stage, she speaks in a drawl of a Jersey accent and is brash with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), her manager, played by Jude Law and her teenage daughter Albertine, also played by Raffey Cassidy.

In the role, Portman goes all-out, breaking down in hysterics and lobbing verbal barbs left and right. It’s fun to watch but also decidedly unhinged and at times even sloppy coming from the actress. It’s ripe for comparison to a certain Academy Award-nominated performance, but Black Swan this isn’t.

The real stand-out performance here is from Raffey Cassidy who does double duty playing two different roles. She brings specific nuances to each, carrying the apprehension and growth in young Celeste and the reserved trepidation of Albertine, Celeste’s daughter. She does majority of the movie’s heavy-lifting, maintaining a soul and depth, while the performances around her morph into caricature, most notably Jennifer Ehle as a hardened, seasoned publicist and Jude Law’s manager who descends into a haggard, gruff abyss.

From the very moment we hold on Cassidy’s face as she sings the movie’s lead track, “Wrapped Up,” and first gets discovered, it’s clear the actress has an ability to express so much in just her face, in a look or a turn of the head or a sigh, and she provides a much-needed emotional constant in an otherwise erratic work.

Even with the frustrations that exist throughout Vox Lux, they nearly melt away with the movie’s finale, a stunner of a finish where we essentially watch a Celeste concert unfold before our eyes. It puts the Sia-composed songs on full display (A Star Is Born, watch your back, but not really), which is great, but just as you think it’s all going to coalesce into a conclusion on the thesis presented at the top of the movie, it instead delivers totally mixed messaging.

It confuses whether what is on display on-stage is supposed to be triumphant or damning and suggests that perhaps Corbet didn’t know what point he was trying to make all along.

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