Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux portrays a star who is born out of tragedy and she manages to keep milking it for a seemingly infinite time. Natalie Portman is that star and her work here is certainly memorable. Unlike her Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan (which also explored the highs and lows of notoriety), this movie never quite earns being blessed by her committed performance. It drew me in for a while before getting lost in its own pretentiousness and, eventually, a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe that’s the point Corbet is going for with his script as he ruminates on the vapid nature of pop celebrity. However, when the message is that the main character isn’t ultimately worth paying attention to, it’s tricky to get invested.
We meet Celeste as a 14-year-old in 1999, as played by Raffey Cassidy. She and sister Ellie survive a school shooting, leaving Celeste with a gunshot wound to the spinal area. Her recovery inspires her to write a ballad that strikes a chord with the nation. When it’s time to cut a full album, it’s in the aftermath of 9/11 when her lightweight dance pop recordings (courtesy of Sia) are the kind of throwaway ditties that fit the airwaves. These horrific events turn Celeste into a superstar and ultimately a diva.
Forty minutes in, the story flashes forward to 2017. Now 31 years old and now in the diminutive but fierce form of Portman, Celeste is prepping a comeback tour while attempting to rid herself of certain baggage. There’s an at fault car accident from a few years back that caused injury. And there’s the breaking news of the day – a terrorist attack in Central Europe where the assailants dressed as characters from one of her old videos.
Celeste deals with all this as she’s an absentee mom to her own teen, also played by Cassidy. Her girl is raised primarily by Ellie (Stacy Martin) and that sister relationship is strained to its limit. Jude Law is the manager who puts up with the frequent tantrums and rock star behavior while indulging in it himself.
For a while, Vox Lux is unique enough with its subject matter to inspire hope. That’s for about an hour when it seems to be generating its thesis on stardom and tragedy. I will say I dug Willem Dafoe’s intermittent ironic narration. In the second half, it’s mostly about watching Celeste’s out of control behavior. In the realm of musical tales, this runs out of fresh notes to hit. What helps is that Portman is terrific. She just never quite elevates this above being an occasional fascinating misfire.
**1/2 (out of four)