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Review: ‘Jackie’ wastes genuine talent on a toothless biopic

Pablo Larraín’s Jackie wants its audiences to think it has a lot on its mind. Featuring striking imagery and a series of adept performances, the story, which follows the titular Kennedy matriarch in the days immediately before and after the JFK assassination, takes a contemplative approach to the traditional biopic formula. Its themes reveal themselves slowly to the audience, often relying on its convincing acting (especially from Natalie Portman in the lead role) to suggest emotional subtext.

In short, many of the elements needed for an introspective, masterful film are here, which is why it’s a shame that the resulting work is an almost complete misfire. While well-meaning and made with visual grace, the film is written, performed and crafted with very little subtlety, forcing its meaning onto its audience like a hammer on a thematic nail.

The plot falls directly into the conventions of Oscar bait filmography. In the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy invites a journalist (Billy Crudup) to her residence to write a profile detailing the First Lady’s struggle following her husband’s death. These scenes are intermixed with flashbacks to the days before and after the assassination, as Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) moderates the transfer of power to Lyndon B. Johnson and his clan. Meanwhile, Jackie insists upon an extravagant procession for her husband, as she sinks further into mindless grief.

Even on paper, the outline above is far from unique. Countless other biopics share similar narratives, almost beat for beat. Jackie stands apart mostly because of the historical figure it chooses to follow (and her gender), and its choice to construct her post-mortem journey primarily as an internal psychological battle. In this regard, Portman rises to the challenge. Her performance is electrifying when the film follows her in Jackie’s quiet, solitary moments. Larraín holds her face in close-up for much of the film, rarely tearing away from her emotional horror.

Portman is less convincing in scenes when she is forced to impersonate Mrs. Kennedy, down to her mannerisms and voice. Try as she might, the Oscar-winning actress cannot sell Jackie’s accent, opting instead for a whispery New England lilt that sounds authentic half the time.

Other times, the Kennedy aura is completely absent. The result is a performance that feels incomplete and pressured, as if Portman was constrained by the legacy of Jackie herself. Other performances, especially that of John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon B. Johnson, are completely miscalculated and toothless.

But the film’s greatest weakness lies in Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay, which shifts radically between silent emotional moments and overwrought explanatory monologues. Oppenheim, best known for penning cinematic adaptations of young adult fiction, relies on symbolism and emotional undertones so basic that the film’s artful intentions are difficult to take seriously.

Jackie and the supporting cast of characters literally explain their deepest fears and desires among themselves in unnatural lines. An example: “I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.” If that doesn’t induce a groan by itself, Larraín pulls in with an extreme close-up to accentuate each and every word.

It’s a shame that Jackie, with all of the talent involved both in front and behind the camera, fails to offer anything unique. Even in the film’s most harrowing moments, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that absolutely none of this is new, or particularly impressive. Portman gives it her all, but the writing and lack of nuanced thematic material hinders this biopic from start to finish.

Watch the trailer for Jackie here: 

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]