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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.