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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: For Natalie Portman, Second Time’s Not Quite the Charm When It Comes to Hosting

She does get to revive "Jackie," though, in a night of odd sketches.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1738 "Natalie Portman" -- Pictured: (l-r) Cecily Strong as Melania Trump, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy during "First Lady" sketch in Studio 8H on Saturday, February 3, 2018 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

Will Heath/NBC

Natalie Portman’s hosting gig back in 2006 isn’t all that memorable. You might think it was, because it featured the unforgettable “Natalie Raps,” but chances are that’s all you remember. (The episode also had the final appearance of The Needlers, if anyone was clamoring for that fun fact. The episode actually is pretty good as a whole though.) So 12 years later, with the memory of that rap — and nothing else — in the lead-up to this episode, there was, of course, palpable excitement. Plus, it’s kind of unheard of for such a big star — and a consistent one at that — to host “Saturday Night Live” once, leave a lasting mark in at least one form, and then just not host again for over a decade. It’s almost as gangsta as the Natalie Portman we know from her rap.

Host: Natalie Portman

12 years later, and look what happens. The same thing, surprisingly: not a memorable episode, but the rap is definitely a banger. Except, this episode isn’t actually pretty good at all.

The monologue is solid, considering the reason the show’s about to go on a month-long break. The Winter Olympics are coming, and you have Natalie Portman monologuing, with Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon as NBC Olympics commentators during the process. It’s actually a bit that this episode could have stood to use more — even before knowing how it would actually shake out — because while the episode made a few mentions of the Olympics (really only here) and the Super Bowl, it never really leaned into the fact that sports would be messing with the show’s flow and people’s attention spans. “SNL” didn’t even air live on the West Coast this week because of “NFL Honors”!

Kate: “She started off with a charming into and then transitioned into a light political joke.”
Kenan: “That’s a tough combination to pull off. But she’s done it marvelously.”
Kate: “She sure has. I’ve seen a lot of hosts who could not.”
Kenan: “Oh yeah? Like who?”
Kate: “I’d rather not say.”

If only Kate would have named even one host for example. Now that would have been memorable. Leslie Jones is also right with her, noting that “I don’t know why they make these tiny white actresses do stand-up comedy.” (The answer is because it’s either that or a singing monologue.) Portman proves early on, with the way she commits to the “instant replay,” that she’s ready to play in the “SNL” sandbox. And that’s what leads to her performances in sketches like “Revolutionary War” and “Alien Love,” for better or worse.

By the way, wonder if the New Yorkers at “SNL” are at all bitter about who’s playing at the Super Bowl. They’ve really kept it close to the vest, so it’s tough to tell… Points to this sketch for throwing in the umpteenth “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reference of the season though.

The Kids Choice Awards sketch probably won’t get much mileage on the viral front, though it plays the very irreverent tone of this entire episode better than a good portion of the sketches. The “absolutely terrifying” vocalizer part is also too real, as any current adult who was a child during the WWF’s (now WWE) Attitude Era was probably also very much afraid of Kane due in large part to his voice box.

Best Sketch of The Night: Natalie’s 2nd Rap

This is far and away the best sketch of the night. It’s not even close.

Let’s be honest though: “Natalie Raps” (aka “Natalie’s Rap” on the actual Lonely Island album) is pretty much unimpeachable and unsurpassable. So as good as this is, it was never going to better than the original. But it’s still very good. It also brings a tear to the eye to witness Natalie defend the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, 12 years after she created the lasting image of her making a child dressed as Queen Amidala cry… as she rapped, “all the kids looking up to me can suck my dick.” Now she wants us all to “say somethin’ about the motherfucking prequels, bitch,” and she means that in the best way possible. This sketch is basically confirmation the song “Trap Queen” is about Natalie Portman, right?

Worst Sketch of The Night: Stranger Things 3

You know those “SNL” sketches that only exist for the cast to show off their impressive array of impressions? This sketch is like the opposite, combined with the worst bodily function-based parts of “Mystery Men.” (Though, if you wanted to constantly hear that Mike from ‘Stranger Things’ is horny, you’ll love this sketch.) In fact, this episode is way too concerned with bodily functions, when it’s not expanding on a bit from “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” Then we get to the end, where Kenan’s character is supposedly “good at thinking of ways to end sketches.”

As it turns out, he is not. Also, why is there a “Stranger Things” sketch happening right now, anyway? It’s not like there was recent news about the show, and it probably won’t even return until 2019.

Honorable Mention: Alien Lover

Again, Natalie Portman sure does commit, but seriously, “Ace Ventura” came out in 1994.

Most “You Really Don’t Have To Do This” Sketch of The Night: First Lady

“Jackie” (or “Jackie O’s,” as Cecily’s Melania would say) throwback or not, this sketch should be enough to call for a moratorium on the sympathetic Melania Trump riff. Especially since the show peaked with Melania short film in the Kumail Nanjiani episode. Also, for a show that also had the complicit sketch (for Ivanka Trump, in last season’s Scarlett Johnansson episode), you’d think there’d be more self-awareness when it comes to how they paint Melania.

Best Male Performer: Alex Moffat

It was honestly during the opening credits that I realized I couldn’t believe Alex Moffat was still only a featured player on ‘SNL’. Yes, he only debuted last season, but he’s become such a utility player on the show that it’s hard to imagine him not around now. Mikey Day is in a similar position, but his “featured player” status has always been really an in name only situation. Moffat had the newbie growing pains of not really showing up in sketches for awhile. So there is hope for Luke Null.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong’s incredulous reactions in this sketch surprisingly work for the majority of this episode. And while her Melania interpretation is running on fumes, she still has good little moments with the character. She also bolsters the somewhat meandering Weekend Update as the scarily accurate Catherine Deneuve to Kate McKinnon’s Brigitte Bardot (one of the rare different or new things in this episode that Kate gets to do in this episode).

Best Impression: Natalie Portman as Jackie

Justice for “Jackie”! This actually isn’t an impression-heavy episode: Well, there’s Kate McKinnon as Ellen and as Hillary Clinton, but again, those aren’t new or different for her. The Jackie impression probably shouldn’t even count as an impression, because it’s just a role Natalie has previously played… But there’s a lot of straw-grasping necessary with this episode, so there you go.

Worst Impression: Aidy Bryant as 18 as Borat

She promised a “pretty good” Borat impression in the “Stranger Things 3” sketch, and she did not deliver. That’s what you call the opposite of VERY NICE.

Grade: C-

Sadly, “SNL” goes into another break of sorts on a weak note. (The last time was the equally disappointing Kevin Hart episode.) And this time, it’s surprisingly burnt out after just four episodes. There’s even a technical difficulty during the cold open that’s kind of an omen for how this episode shake out, if you really think about it. This episode is treated like a big deal: Alec Baldwin returns as Trump, and Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch show up for some sports team pride. But the former really isn’t an ingredient in a quality “SNL” episode, and the latter are… fine. They’re fine, just like the sketch.

On the plus side, Natalie Portman as a host isn’t exactly the problem. Even if she can’t do a Masshole accent to save her life, she commits to all the material she’s given in this episode. The problem is, she’s given material that probably should have been cut in dress rehearsal. In fact, the sketches almost feel like they were cut from the Jessica Chastain episode, an episode with sketches that would have suited Portman just as well. Portman is obviously someone who has no problem doing the weird sketches, but this week’s show wasn’t as much the standard weird ‘SNL’ has recently been praised for as it’s been “so random.” If you need to know what that means, just go back to Heidi Gardner’s teenage character from last week.

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