JACKIE (2016) Does Dallas / by Samuel B. Prime

Portentous and pretentious strings with bass reverberations open the film upon a black, mournful veil of a screen. Do you get it? It's a metaphor. Or an emotionally-manipulative device that does the work the film otherwise can't.

A snapshot biopic of John F. Kennedy's assassination and its immediate, heartbreaking aftermath, JACKIE (Pablo Larrain, 2016) - in spite of the title's mononymous implication - is least of all about Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy. The lofty promise of insight into the psychology of a woman who not only faced the tragic death of her husband with the eyes of the world upon her, but who survived to live another day is undone due to a narrow, although understandable (not the same as inexcusable), focus on the man and his legacy. In short, a missed opportunity.

At times looking like an imitation of a modern Malick and at others dipping into that uncanny valley of subjective exploitation, the combination of slow-motion scenes accompanied by "meaningful" narration and a gory replay of the assassination that just barely stops short of putting us inside the President's exploded skull reveals a film at odds with what sort of film it wants to be. It oscillates back and forth between Oscar bait and outrageous sleaze, without achieving either. Competing framing mechanisms - an interview with a journalist and Jackie's televised tour of the white house - further distract from what might have been a different story than we already know. It is this imbalance and lack of decisiveness that renders JACKIE as an unremarkable, although never boring, movie.

While its primary shortcoming is one of grossly incompatible expectations and delivery, the result is a committed performance by Natalie Portman in a film that incidentally reduces a woman's entire life to her husband's death and funeral. One would like to think that Jackie was more than that. But can you fault a film - or any art - for a failure to achieve something that it seems to have no interest in? After all, JACKIE never purports to be more than a dramatic recreation of a specific moment in time. It never promises the life story of Jackie Kennedy, although the title implies a kind of summary in its succinctness. The overwhelming feeling of adequacy - as opposed to greatness - upon the film's completion speaks for itself. Even though it isn't nearly all bad - specifically, costume design, set design, and art direction are notably on point - the takeaway from JACKIE is best encapsulated by the words of my companion: "I cried during SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT (1993), but this did nothing for me."

JACKIE opens in select theaters nationwide on Friday, December 2nd, 2016

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon