Vox Lux, 2018.
Written and Directed by Brady Corbet.
Starring Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe, Natasha Romanova, Christopher Abbott, Erik King, Matt Servitto, and Maria Dizzia.
An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star.
Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (the film follows up the writer and director’s previous effort, the middling war drama Childhood of a Leader) is a curious misfire; there’s never a moment in the movie where the script and direction don’t feel as if they are ready to break out and finally make some biting satire about the connecting threads that exist between national tragedy, soulless popstar worldwide icons, and mass shooting acts of terrorism that unfortunately still happen across America. Even more promising is Natalie Portman at the center of it all, impressing with vocals and a thick New York accent, coupled with a rip-roaring, self-centered, absorbed personality that sees the cynical singer tearing into everyone from her family to her career strategists to nosy journalists that pry for quotes on a behavior slip up. Everything about Vox Lux is overflowing with potential; the film is even narrated by Willem Dafoe!
Shaky execution is, however, present from the beginning, as Vox Lux tastelessly opens with a tacky school shooting that racks up quite a number of bodies. It’s bad enough that there’s no rhyme or reason to why any of this happens (which is monumentally insulting to the victims of similar real-life incidents) or character depth for the perpetrator, but for whatever reason, the troubled teenager is also depicted as a goofy looking emo kid, and I’m genuinely not sure whether this is done for comedic effect or if it was a misguided attempt at showing how disturbed the child is with little to no effort as possible (understandably, the movie does have two hours and 17 years to take us through, broken down into three acts reminiscent to how Danny Boyle structured Steve Jobs).
Unquestionably, the highlight of the early years is young actress Raffey Cassidy (who continues to impress by taking on complex roles, possibly more so than any other actress her age) as Celeste; there’s a moment inside of a church where she sings a song to pay respects to her following classmates, and it’s a moment of quiet serenity, beautiful melodies, compelling lyrics, and aesthetically pleasing photography. If nothing else, Vox Lux does get the important scene right that does serve as the young girl’s launching pad to viral Internet popularity subsequently leading to her own record deal, complete with an advisor played by Jude Law and a publicist played by Jennifer Ehle. It would also be a crime to not note that even as the film flash-forwards to adulthood, Raffey Cassidy remains in the picture playing the pop star’s daughter; it’s a wise move that makes subtle commentary on hereditary traits and what we pass down to future generations.
Nevertheless, Vox Lux transitions into a 45-minute second act following a whirlwind tour of press appearances in the wake of yet another terrorist attack, this one seeing the murderers don headgear present in one of the star’s most famous music videos. She’s also set to perform a revitalization concert of sorts (the music is getting worse and worse, but in this day and age Celeste remains popular); some of this is a hoot to watch thanks to Natalie Portman’s pressured mannerisms and unfiltered negativity towards anyone and everyone she encounters, but it never really finds any thematic groove or purpose. It’s clear that Brady Corbet is trying to show that meteoric superstardom, especially at a young age, can corrupt anyone, even someone seemingly with an indomitable spirit having endured a widely publicized national tragedy. For good measure, it’s also mentioned that her parents die during one of the 9/11 plane crashes.
The problem is that all of this tragedy contains no weight, simply serving as a narrative device to further push along what Brady Corbet wants to say instead of making any of this feel engaging, dramatically or as gallows satire. Vox Lux is a cross between Life Itself director Dan Fogelman’s most offensive impulses and an ass-backward version of A Star is Born. Even Willem Defoe’s narration sounds confused as to what tone he should aspire to be striking. Brady Corbet is also under heavy influence from the late great Jonathan Demme (going as far to dedicate the film to him), and it shows with that hazy, dreamy score that lends the film the audio of a psychological thriller, but that too appears to be all style and no substance.
If all that wasn’t enough, Vox Lux grossly self-indulges in a final 20-minute sequence that is nothing more than Natalie Portman putting on a concert; the choreography and costume design, alongside Portman herself, are eye-catching to soak in, but like the rest of the movie, the proceedings are hollow. Maybe the meta is so strong with Vox Lux that it’s the point with this sledgehammer takedown of mainstream pop music. Whatever it is, Natalie Portman deserves to be in a better film; yes, her performance is Oscar-worthy, but such a mediocre film does not deserve any awards recognition
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com