The Pitch: Okay, so it’s a tale of two sisters, told in two parts, and set across the glossy, soulless backdrop of modern pop music. We’ve got Sia writing the songs. We’ve got Natalie Portman lip synching them. And we’ve got Jude Law playing her tough New York manager. But it’s more than just about fame! It’s about the rippling effects of trauma, be it school shootings, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, or 9/11. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay, because we’ve also got Willem Dafoe as the narrator to fill in the holes for all the plebes, and who doesn’t love Willem Dafoe?
Stay In Your Lane: Did that tongue-in-cheek pitch have your eyes doing their best Sonic the Hedgehog impersonation? If not, then Vox Lux is your bag. Though probably still not. The problem is that writer/director Brady Corbet can’t stay focused for more than five minutes, oscillating between social issues with the precision of an outraged tween on Twitter. What might have been a seductive meditation on the corruption of trauma winds up being a chaotic diatribe about Things We’re Angry About in 21st Century Pop Culture. It’s exhausting, to say the least, but hardly surprising.
After all, Vox Lux is a sophomore effort from Corbet. Even more to the point, it’s the followup to his 2015 feature-film debut, The Childhood of a Leader, which nabbed him the Best Debut Film and Best Director awards at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. Whether that success got to his head or not is debatable, but at the very least, it certainly fueled his drive on Vox Lux. The guy tries so goddamn hard to outdo himself that it’s almost commendable, except that there’s so much pretension washed over this film that it’s too insufferable for any sort of applause. In fact, it’s kind of nauseating.
It’s then telling that Corbet shouldered all of the writing — a first for the would-be auteur. With the exception of his 2008 short, Protect You + Me., he’s long worked with collaborators, particularly on The Childhood of a Leader, which he co-wrote with Mona Fastvold. Needless to say, he could have used another voice on Vox Lux, seeing how the film suffers most from its flimsy character portraits and robotic dialogue. Corbet gets away with it during the first half, mostly because it leans on his stronger visual talents, but that second half with Portman is rough. Truly rough.
Well, Let’s Hear About Portman: Not so good. For starters, she’s only in the film for 50 of its 120 minutes, most of her time finding her spouting maudlin lines that breathlessly scoot her character’s emotional arc from point A to point Z in the ample time she’s afforded. This snapshot performance might have worked if not for her materializing New York accent, which is — no lie — barely a few degrees above John Travolta’s cringing attempts in Gotti from earlier this year.
The way Portman chews through her already-clumsy dialogue is unintentionally cartoonish, and when she leans into the tough, she might as well be wearing a gangster costume from one of those Spirit Halloween stores. She never comes off as casual, especially when she’s juxtaposed against Raffey Cassidy, who winds up offering the most nuanced performance of the entire cast, which is remarkable given her dual roles as Portman’s younger self and her teenage daughter.
Of course, Portman’s accent is a distant second to the attempts of her English co-star. Whoever thought it’d be a smart idea to cast Jude Law as a tough New Yorker ought to be either commended for their imagination, or tasked to spend a year in the Big Apple for deep research. It’s almost comical watching Daddy Dumbledore chew nervously over each sentence, as if he’s thinking, How might Keitel say this? If the film weren’t already such a mess, it might be distracting.
Instead, the two accents unintentionally add some much-needed humor.
Now You Sia, Now You Don’t: With Sia on board, you’d think the songs would at least be the film’s strong suit — sort of. Save for lone emotional standout “Wrapped Up”, the rest of her inclusions are forgettable, pedestrian-level pop. Perhaps she’s holding back the goods for her followup to 2016’s This Is Acting, or maybe she’s just as overworked as Corbet, but fans looking for an album or even an EP of new Sia jams will be mildly disappointed.
Whoa, Scott Walker Did the Score? Yes, he did. Walker previously worked with Corbet on The Childhood of a Leader, and the two re-team here to similarly splendid results. His score is easily one of the stronger takeaways from the film, and ultimately deserves a second or third spin, even outside of the movie.
Verdict: Vox Lux wants to be everything and winds up being nothing. By the end, when the whole thing devolves into a dubious concert film, and we’re watching fake fans go crazy over fake songs, there’s this uncanny valley of universal bliss that’s just achingly hollow. Perhaps that’s the point, that Corbet is simply critiquing the enduring power of pop music, and how its sweet confection tends to mask even the most devastating traumas. Even so, it’s still hollow.
It also feels incomplete. Something’s missing in Vox Lux, and that something goes well beyond the garish accents and Corbet’s gluttonous smorgasbord of aesthetics. Structurally speaking, the film’s two halves never quite resolve one another, no matter how much exposition Corbet squeezes into the dialogue and no matter how much he employs Dafoe as a narrator, and that lack of resolution makes for an exhausting watch.
Once again, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, Vox Lux boils down to an everyday Twitter feed: fake personalities, interesting ideas, pointless arguments, and lots of colorful images and songs you might want to save for later.