Black Swan Less than Half Cooked

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

108 mins. Rated R (Sexual situations, language)

* *

They hype has been enormous. Black Swan hadn’t even opened before Natalie Portman was said to be a wrap for an academy award. Now that it’s here, Ms. Portman may want to wait before she buys a gown for Oscar night. I hate to say it, but a whole lot of Black Swan plays like Showgirls in tutus.

Think that’s harsh? The stories are nearly identical. First, replace Vegas with the New York City Ballet. In Black Swan we have aspirant prima donna Nina Sayres (Portman). She’s basically a good girl, but she’s ambitious and everyone around her tells her she needs to be more aggressive to get to the top. That list includes her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who stood where Nina now stands and had to give up her career when she got pregnant with Nina. Also high on the list is maniacal choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is equal parts brilliant and smarmy--the sort who wants both to produce groundbreaking ballet and get into the Danskins of his principal stars. Leroy’s bold idea is to produce the classic Swan Lake in such a way that the same dancer is both the white (good) swan and the black (evil and destructive). The perfectionist Nina is ideal as the white swan, but can she summon enough misanthropy to dance the black? Also standing in her way is Lily (Mila Kunis), her understudy, and Beth MacIntryre (Winona Ryder), the washed-up queen whom Nina seeks to supplant and whom Leroy has already cast aside.

A familiar story indeed…. It’s 42nd Street, which was the basis for Showgirls. Nina’s a bit classier than Elizabeth Barkley in Showgirls, but she’s every bit as na├»ve about what it takes to get to the top. She’s been a pampered princess, fiercely protected (and driven) by her single mother and kept pristine and virginal behind a frilly pink wall of stuffed animals. (Barkley had abusive parents.) So, of course we know what will happen next--Nina’s bubble will burst when she’s pushed to go beyond her expectations. Nina is on course, but others have been her GPS and she has no idea what direction to go when she’s forced to take a detour. How bad does she have to be? With whom must she sleep? Whom must she destroy? Whom can she trust? Yep--just like Showgirls. The only major difference is that, at its core, Black Swan is a tale of Nina’s unraveling rather than her arrival.

With better direction this might have played better, but Aronofsky is so ham-handed that Nina’s descent is telegraphed and plays more like a grade-B horror film than a classy drama. And it really does look a lot like Showgirls, with Cassel standing in for Kyle MacLachlan and Kunis for Gina Gershorn. There’s even a gratuitous lesbian sequence between Portman and Kunis that would have been way more appropriate for Showgirls than for Black Swan. Okay, so Portman is a way better actress than Barkley (who isn’t?) and I’ll concede that the film looks gorgeous and is well acted, though if anyone should win an acting Oscar it should be Cassel, not Portman. In the end, though, Black Swan no amount of high-falootin’ ballet and longhair music can’t disguise the fact that it really is Showgirls with less nudity and crudity--it’s histrionic, campy, and trashy.

PS--It’s not a “chick flick” either; most of the women I know who’ve seen this film agree that it’s not exactly Swan Lake.

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