Natalie Portman is deservedly receiving the best reviews of her career for her performance in director Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan.' In the film, Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who buckles in her pursuit of perfection as the lead in a production of 'Swan Lake' and descends deep into madness. It's a wild, terrifying performance in an artful, psychologically-complex thriller, and Portman nails it.
If anyone is going to best presumed Oscar frontrunner Annette Bening for this year's Best Actress prize, it's Portman. Their performances are a study in opposites: Bening is subtly incarnate in 'The Kids Are Alright,' her character's anger plays out more in cold glances and pursed lips than it does in hysterics, while Portman goes for broke in 'Swan,' losing her mind in a cascade of violence, tears, pirouettes and gore. Which actress Oscar voters go for will likely have more to do with personal preference than who gave the "better" performance. Those inclined to celebrate nuance will lean toward Bening; voters who champion wild-eyed intensity will check Portman's name on the ballot.
Portman, however, may have more to overcome than Bening's acclaimed performance and longstanding reputation as a capable (and overdue) actress come Oscar season. In the heat of the competition, the actress's rom-com 'No Strings Attached' hits theaters, and, well, we're a little worried it might just end up being her 'Norbit.'
For those unfamiliar, 'Norbit' is the 2007 film that many feel destroyed Eddie Murphy's shot at an Oscar for 'Dreamgirls.' Going into awards season, Murphy already had a room full of trophies for his turn as James "Thunder" Early, an R&B star who, as his career fades, falls into drugs and infidelity. Murphy took home a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award -- usually a fairly accurate predictor of Oscar success -- for his performance, in addition to a pile of critics' prizes, including a win from the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
But that was before 'Norbit' hit theaters. In the comedy, Murphy plays multiple roles, as he did to greater success and acclaim in the 'Nutty Professor' films, among them the titular bespectacled nerd and his obese, overbearing wife, Rasputia, who stands in the way of Norbit finding true love with a character played by Thandie Newton.
Though 'Norbit' turned out to be a box office hit for the actor, with a domestic gross of over $95 million, it was annihilated by critics, who deemed it not only unfunny but crass and offensive. The film earned an eight percent rating on movie review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and went on to "win" eight Golden Raspberry Awards, which honor the worst in film. Three of those awards went to Murphy himself -- Worst Actor (Murphy as Norbit), Worst Supporting Actress (Murphy as Rasputia) and Worst Supporting Actor (Murphy as Mr. Wong).
The film hit theaters at the same time that Academy members were considering whether to vote for Murphy's performance in 'Dreamgirls' over turns by Alan Arkin ('Little Miss Sunshine'), Djimon Hounsou ('Blood Diamond'), Mark Wahlberg ('The Departed') and Jackie Earle Haley ('Little Children'). he negative reviews cast a pall over the actor and caused Oscar voters to second guess whether he deserved the prestigious Best Supporting Actor prize. 'Norbit' made Murphy's turn in 'Dreamgirls' seem more like a fluke than anything else, and Oscar voters instead awarded veteran actor Arkin for his turn in the indie hit 'Little Miss Sunshine.'
While Portman's 'No Strings Attached' doesn't look as offensive -- or, frankly, as bad -- as 'Norbit,' it doesn't look like it is going to do much to bolster the actress's Oscar chances either. 'No Strings' (originally titled 'Friends With Benefits,' until a similar rom-com starring Justin Timberlake, Emma Stone and Portman's 'Swan' co-star Mila Kunis began filming) pits Portman's considerable talents against those of Ashton Kutcher, an actor known more these days for his Twitter account than his big screen performances. The pair star as friends who try to carry on an emotionless sexual relationship until both find themselves wanting more.
'Strings' could end up being a totally serviceable rom-com -- it is, after all, directed by Ivan Reitman, whose resume is littered with both big hits ('Ghostbusters,' 'Dave') and major misses ('My Super Ex-Girlfriend,' 'Evolution,' 'Father's Day'). But it could also be a total misfire in the vein of many of Kutcher recent comedies, including the flop 'Killers' and 'Valentine's Day' (a box office hit that enjoys a dismal 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
Given the film's unfunny trailer and mid-January release date, a time of year when Oscar hopefuls (including Portman's own 'Black Swan') traditionally move from limited to nationwide release to gobble up what money there is in the slow post-Christmas film marketplace, the latter seems more likely.
See the trailer here:
Of the trailer, Moviefone Associate Editor Andy Scott says, "It reminds me of why I hated Natalie Portman in the first place." Ouch.
But that sentiment is the last thing Portman needs going on in voters' heads as she attempts to wrestle the Oscar away from Bening, a respected veteran actress who's been nominated for three Oscars and who many believe is long overdue for a win. [Julianne Moore is too, js] For as popular as she is, Portman has her detractors (though she's come a long way in recent years in terms of working her way into the public's good graces). Her participation in the poorly-received 'Star Wars' prequels left a bad taste in many film fan's mouths, and her role in 'Garden State' -- a box office hit that at first received high praise but has since gone on to become, for many, the epitome of eye-roll-inducing hipster filmmaking -- is often cited as a prime example of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" archetype that many film critics find insufferable. It doesn't help that for a while after 'State,' many perceived Portman as being somewhat indistinguishable from the character she played.
The feminist blog Jezebel -- citing an A.V. Club article, which snarkily said of Portman, "Oh, Natalie, your unconventional ways are so inspiring, and your beauty is surprisingly non-threatening" -- has on more than one occasion labeled Portman's character in the film "pernicious" and "irksome," and more recently questioned the logic and safety of lavishing praise on the actress for the disciplined training she underwent to physically achieve her performance in 'Swan' -- that is, her much-discussed weight loss and tireless workout schedule -- saying that by not pointing out the dysfunctional relationship her character has with food and exercise often enough, critics "conflate discipline with what sounds like self-torture."
So while few seem to be arguing that Portman is anything less than breathtaking in 'Black Swan,' many seem to remain on the fence about the actress herself, and an ill-timed flop that reminds Oscar voters of why they were uneasy about her in the first place is the last thing she needs if she hopes to be a serious contender this year.
The Jan. 21 release date for 'No Strings Attached' seems set in stone; at just over a month away, the posters are out, the trailer is playing in theaters and TV ads are set to begin running soon. So come mid-January, Natalie Portman will likely become her own worst enemy, and she'll do it in more ways than one. If 'Strings' is bad, it will not only hurt her very real shot at an Oscar -- as 'Norbit' did for Murphy and some say the critically-reviled 'Bride Wars' did for 'Rachel Getting Married's' Anne Hathaway in 2009 -- it will also compete for moviegoers' dollars against 'Swan' as it expands into theaters nationwide in the new year.
it probably won't tbh, doubt it'll do well at the bo