Pop Star Pic "Vox Lux" Goes Down In Ignominy

If there’s a less-than-disastrous movie to be made that kicks off with a school shooting and ends in a pop concert, it isn’t “Vox Lux.” Writer-director Brady Corbet’s dismally conceived and executed turn-of-the-twenty-first-century drama is self-aware in all the wrong ways, riding the aforementioned histrionics plus stilted narration from Willem Dafoe to the polar opposite of the promised land.

Star and Oscar-winner Natalie Portman doesn’t appear until nearly an hour in, a younger version of her character, Celeste Montgomery, played by Raffey Cassidy (“The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”) for the first half of the film. Cassidy looks and sounds like a young Portman, startlingly so in one particular long shot, but the 16-year-old stands no chance against a script so tragically try-hard. As Dafoe explains over video footage intended to make “Vox Lux” feel like a documentary,” Celeste’s rise to pop stardom is inexorably linked to an especially traumatic high school experience – a 1999 school shooting she would just barely survive.

In lieu of time jumping, which may have curbed the laborious cynicism of the narrative and allowed Portman earlier entry, Corbet barrels right into his inciting incident. We see one of Celeste’s teachers shot point blank and then a pile of bloodied teenage bodies. In the context of a movie about pop stardom, none of this comes off as offensive or outrageous – only pathetic. It’s the laziest imaginable grab at our attention. And it barely gets that, to heave it away just as quickly.

As Celeste unwittingly turns her and her Staten Island town’s misfortune into a recording contract, Corbet and cinematographer Lol Crawley present their movie as knock-off Aronofsky, shamelessly recalling the atmosphere of the filmmaker’s devastating 2008 picture “The Wrestler.” Only without the control or sophistication.

Celeste gradually makes the turn from innocent to sexed up video star, while the figures around her – chiefly her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and greaseball manager (Jude Law) – move less like chess pieces and more like backboards for desperate lobs of cultural critique. By the time Corbet invokes 9/11 and further instances of terrorism, all thoughts of worthy satire are off the table.

Finally, enter Natalie Portman, whose embattled, exhausted portrayal of an inveterate musical icon deserves so much better. Her Celeste is the only remotely convincing piece here, largely wasted on lengthy back and forth with her daughter (also played by Cassidy) set in a diner. The sequence is all tempest in a teapot, an acting showcase full of dialogue that doesn’t get across anything Portman doesn’t convey in body language and disposition.

The climactic concert is arguably the worst the film has to offer, Celeste’s pre-show breakdown summarily glossed over in favor of amateurish photography and staging – not to mention the worst songs real-life pop star Sia has ever penned. Celeste gyrates her way to an inevitable non-conclusion, Portman’s lethargic lip-syncing punctuating just how tired this all is. These are the final pieces of the buckshot that is “Vox Lux,” blustery and loud, at once aiming for a dozen targets and none at all.

Squint and perhaps you’ll see the faint outline of a delectably dark piece of pop art. Open your eyes and they’ll roll until Corbet mercifully fades to black.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: December 7, 2018
Studio: Neon
Director: Brady Corbet
Screenwriter: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some strong violence, and drug content)