As my friend Tessa can attest, I’m not someone who easily changes his opinion. Or regularly changes his opinion. Or, like, ever changes his opinion. And one of my bedrock principles has always been “Natalie Portman = amazing.” I mean, ever since I saw her in The Professional I was hooked. I have seen every major release of hers in the theater with one glaring exception: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. And that continued through this past Monday, when I saw Annihilation. Which made me yawn and left me angry and confused:
I told co-workers yesterday that I was disappointed in Annihilation, despite its cast (Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac) and pedigree (written and directed by Alex Garland, who wrote The Beach [the book], 28 Days Later, and wrote and directed Ex Machina). They acted surprised – what did I expect? And, what did I expect from a Natalie Portman movie anyway? They are never any good. And while my instinct was to rise to her defense, I realized something: they were right. Her movies, on the whole, are actually pretty bad. And while this may be an obvious statement to those reading this, that is akin to me realizing the sky is blue after thinking (knowing?) it was red all these years. How did I come to this game-changing realization? More after the jump…
So, I went through Natalie’s IMDB page and what I found was startling: a long list of movies that, mostly, were not very good. Let’s take a trip, shall we? Note: I’m only discussing her major roles or movies that had major releases, or other cameos that were culturally relevant. So no discussion of, say, Greed, a New Fragrance by Francesco Vezzoli (yes, this exists).
Let’s start at the beginning. Right out of the gate, you’ve got The Professional. This is the movie that put Natalie on the map, and it still holds up. She’s crucial to the bananas plot actually working, and she more than holds her own against Jean Reno. So far, so good. Up next is Beautiful Girls, which I like a lot, but, really, only the Natalie Portman parts. She plays the precocious neighbor to Timothy Hutton’s protagonist, and she’s wise beyond her years. This movie could be edited down to a 12-minute short of just their scenes and it’d be a lot better (I don’t need to ever see Michael Rapaport propose with a champagne-colored diamond again). But still, so far, so good.
Her next roles were in the Tim Burton sci-fi spoof Mars Attacks, which, fine, and then the Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You. Neither are very good, but she certainly isn’t the reason why.
Then we hit the two-pack of Anywhere but Here and Where the Heart Is, and honestly, I still mix-up which one is which. One of them involves her in a Walmart. I’m really not sure which but I think it’s Where the Heart Is. (Checks notes) Yup it’s that one. OK, so I think that shows that neither movie is particularly memorable.
Natalie goes on an interesting run next – the first Star Wars prequel, a cameo in Zoolander, the next Star Wars prequel, and Cold Mountain. All right – the prequels. Yes, these movies are not good unless you’re a Star Wars die hard like me, and even then, there are a lot of issues. And one of the major issues is out of her control – terrible dialogue! I don’t blame Natalie for having to spout nonsense as Queen and Senator Amidala. That’s all on George Lucas. She’s in Zoolander for about 3 seconds, but that’s a good movie, so I’m throwing it in here for discussion’s sake, and Cold Mountain was a better book than movie but it was still good. So these early 2000s are something of a wash.
Up next is Garden State, which, truth be told, I really liked in 2004. I recently re-watched it and there are parts that are just bad. Why do they go into a quarry? Why is Zach Braff’s character best friends with a grave robber? Why is Jim Parsons there, as a knight? Why did they do two different endings (shouldn’t he have just stayed on the plane)? But real talk: Natalie Portman’s performance legitimately elevates that movie. Even if it’s, you know, not very good.
Then Natalie got her first Oscar nomination for Closer in 2004. Closer….man. She’s great in it (as evidenced by said Oscar nomination). But that movie is tough to watch. I took my then-girlfriend to see it as a date movie, and I felt bad about 5 minutes in realizing what I was subjecting her to. It’s funny – Natalie Portman + London setting + Damien Rice on the soundtrack + Clive Owen/Julia Roberts/Jude Law in supporting roles should equal a good movie. But it is…not that. Moving on.
After that, we’ve got the last Star Wars prequel which is legitimately good, if you can again get past the clunky dialogue. (Seriously. Obi-Wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Um, Obi-Wan? Isn’t that itself an absolute?) But Natalie’s Amidala saying, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart” is still devastating.
Natalie’s next big role was both a head-shaver and a head-scratcher: V for Vendetta. She played Evey, someone who gets radicalized by the titular V. I remember there being controversy about this movie when it came out, and how it would ask audiences to sympathize with extremist groups. Mostly it was boring. And I still don’t see why she had to shave her head. This is one that is probably better off the less remembered it is.
After that, we get Natalie spoofing her Harvard/good girl image with one of the best SNL moments of the millennium:
So far, a lot of the resume is mostly a wash, right? An Oscar nom, some decent Star Wars work, some good early promise? But after this rap….we hit a rough patch. The Other Boleyn Girl is eminently forgettable, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is truly awful, and even a spirited cameo in The Darjeeling Limited couldn’t save that movie from being a boring cup of tea. But Natalie had a great scene in Paris, Je T’Aime (a movie made up of various shorts, each one in a different Paris neighborhood), and then even directed a segment in the follow-up New York, I Love You. Things are back on track! Even a stumble like Brothers, the Natalie-Tobey Maguire-Jake Gyllenhaal movie that takes itself too seriously by half, can’t stop the Portman momentum train!
And where do we arrive? Boom. Black Swan. Her Oscar-winning performance. Black Swan is probably the best movie, starring my favorite actress, that I will never, ever, ever, ever watch again. I got sushi with my friends Tessa and Alexis after seeing it, and they both had a thousand-yard stare that Private Joker would be proud of. I’m still not sure what happened at the end of Black Swan, or if I was rooting for Barbara Hershey, or Natalie, or Mila Kunis, but I do know that it’s not really a good movie. But never been happier for someone to win an Oscar.
So, now Natalie’s an Oscar-winner. What comes next should cement her as an A-list and serious actress, right? Instead she does the forgettable rom-com No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher. Not only is this movie not good, it is eclipsed months later by the superior Friends with Benefits that had the exact same premise. And rather then jumping back into drama, her next movie is Your Highness, a movie with a great cast (James Franco, Danny McBride, Zooey Deschanel, and Justin Theroux) but that is just so unfunny. Another one that I took a then-girlfriend to that, about 20 minutes in, I said, “I’m sorry – do you want to leave?”
Natalie tried to win me (and I guess the rest of her fanbase) back by appearing in Thor and Thor: The Dark World. But the second Thor movie is the worst of the Marvel franchise, and even Natalie as cool physicist Jane Foster can’t save them.
Natalie next did cameos on two shows that I like, The Simpsons (twice, as Bart’s girlfriend Darcy) and Angie Tribeca. Not much gained there, but I’ll give her some credit for choosing good material, even if both shows were well into their respective runs at that point and her combined screen time was about seven minutes.
Just when you thought maybe Natalie couldn’t pick a great project for herself, along came Jackie. And man, she killed it – I still maintain she should have won the Oscar last year. And then she gave us the gift of another Natalie rap during this SNL season!
And so I thought, here comes a Portman renaissance. Until I sat through Annihilation. The less said about it, the better.
What did all of this teach me? Well, that I’ve seen a lot of Natalie Portman movies. A lot. Many, many times. And that, as with most actors, she’s had some hits and some misses. I don’t know that her resume necessarily pales to that of her contemporaries, but it’s a lot less stellar than I remembered and would have vouched for even a few days ago. I don’t know how much of this is her fault, per se – what roles are offered to her, what roles are her agents fighting for, etc. Some things had promise (V for Vendetta, maybe? Or even Your Highness?) and just fizzled. Others looked like mistakes from the start (I can’t believe I still have to type the words Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium). And others she simply killed it in (Closer, Jackie, Black Swan) even if the films themselves weren’t great.
I don’t think anyone can deny that she’s a great actress. Three Oscar nominations, a win for Best Actress, and I don’t think she’s done yet. She’s not the Meryl Streep of today (I guess that’s Amy Adams if not, you know, Meryl Streep), but I don’t know that she was ever trying to be. I’m glad that I could step away from my blind loyalty and give her career an honest evaluation. It’s still pretty good, and as I said, she’s a great actress.
But Natalie, on the .000001% chance you’re reading this, maybe let me be your agent?