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Movie Review

‘Vox Lux’ goes over the top — does it hit the right note?

Natalie Portman (left and right, centerstage) in “Vox Lux.”NEON photos

Suppose that the catalytic scene in “A Star Is Born” wasn’t thrilling but chilling – not some chance encounter, but a mass school shooting. That’s the opening, darkly distinguishing chord struck by “Vox Lux,” an indie meditation on pop celebrity from young actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet and top-billed Natalie Portman.

Powerful as the early action’s mingling of stardust and horror is, though — and Corbet successfully goes to this particular well more than once — it’s also a precursor of the film’s progressively indulgent tonal freestyling. After a point, we’re left wondering whether we’re watching a character study or caricature. Either way, the portrait gradually morphs from intriguing to tedious.

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Raffey Cassidy (“Tomorrowland”) plays Portman’s Celeste as a young teen, a miracle survivor of her school’s tragedy who channels the ordeal into a plaintive ballad. A sympathetic public embraces the candlelight-vigil tune as an anthem, and — as Willem Dafoe details in solemn, “Behind the Music”-mocking narration — the record industry’s star-making machinery gets cranking, helmed by Celeste’s jaded yet protective new manager (Jude Law). Choreograph some dance moves that compensate for her post-shooting spinal aches and fab-ulize her scar-concealing choker, and our girl is on her way. Triumphant, or slightly twisted? It’s quite a question to ponder.

Cut to “Act II — Regenesis,” as it’s titled with ironic grandiosity, and the wreck that is Portman’s now-adult Celeste. Scraggily resplendent in hard-livin’ rockabilly wear, she’s supposed to be doing publicity and a kickoff concert for her new sci-fi concept album, “Vox Lux.” Except that she’s distracted by family issues with her semi-
estranged daughter (Cassidy again). And by lingering fallout from a methanol binge (!). And by enabling from Law’s fellow backslider, who maybe isn’t so protective after all. And by her unfortunate, tangential connection to further unspeakable violence — terrorism this time, a provocative story thread that’s under-examined.

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That’s a lot to cover, and you suspect the film might have managed it better with more restraint. Portman can be a curiosity in how markedly she ranges from standout (“Jackie”) to spotty (“Star Wars”) depending on the director — and here, her performance goes way over the top. The onetime child actor knows from adolescent spotlights, yet a culminating dressing-room breakdown feels more overdone than emotionally authentic. (We could also do with less of her Noo Yawk accent, and Law’s.)

At least there’s interest in seeing Portman apply a “Black Swan” level of commitment to her glittery, Sia-penned concert routine, even if it reminds us what bop-along suckers we can be for style, never mind the substance. Assuming that’s among the points Corbet is out to make, it’s an apt one.

★ ★
VOX LUX

Written and directed by Brady Corbet. Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy. Boston Common, Somerville, suburbs. 110 minutes. R (language, some strong violence, drug content)


Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.