It’s been a dozen years since Natalie Portman hosted SNL. Back in 2006, she busily fended off questions about life as Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels and played off of her genteel image in a savage rap about her proclivities for drugs, doing dirt, and catching the D. In the intervening years, Portman has kept things serious — playing everything from obsessive ballerina Nina in Black Swan to Jackie Onassis in Jackie — but she pops up in the occasional rom-com or TV comedy. Filming her latest movie, the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s speculative fiction freakout Annihilation, surely made her ready to do something less than serious. Let’s see what she’s got up her sleeve for her return this week to Studio 8H.
During this episode of Fox & Friends, Steve Doocy (Alex Moffat), Ainsley Earhardt (Heidi Gardner), and Brian Kilmeade (Beck Bennett) get down to the business of stroking President Trump’s ego. Then the crew chats with Hope Hicks (Cecily Strong), who likens the White House staff to “a group of strangers working together to push a beached whale back into the sea.” Against all odds, Louis Farrakhan (Chris Redd) comes on to share his gripes about the FBI, and then Trump himself (Alec Baldwin) calls in to get some praise for his State of the Union address. While this open certainly seems accurate, and there are some inspired connections (e.g., the link between Republicans’ gripes and Farrakhan’s), there’s not a lot of bite to it.
Once Portman reminds the audience that this SNL episode is the last one before the beginning of the Winter Olympics, her monologue is suddenly the subject of color commentary from two Olympics emcees (Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon). They’re charmed by her short program until she tries a joke her 6-year-old made up. It was “supposed to be a double-joke joke into a triple applause break,” but it made bandleader Lenny Pickett start openly scrolling through Tinder onstage. Leslie Jones comes on to help Portman stick the big finish: “Does anyone here like New York City?” It’s a pretty joyful deconstruction that also skewers those of us who spend way too much time picking these things apart. Ahem, on to the next sketch …
Colonial representatives (Bennett, Kyle Mooney) gather in Philadelphia to talk about the progress of the 1775 revolt against England. The “patriots of New England” have won the Battle of Bunker Hill, and unfortunately show up to boast about it. These patriots (Portman, Gardner, Moffat, Luke Null, and the visiting Rachel Dratch) sound suspiciously like modern-day New England Patriot–loving douchebags. (“That’s just how we do it in M.A., kid!”) A delegation from Philly (Kenan Thompson, Mikey Day, and the visiting Tina Fey) arrives to brag that they’re going to win a battle and then punch police horses. As insults about Boston and Captain Thomas Brady fly, the straitlaced revolutionaries wish there was a way both the New England patriots and the Philadelphia “iggles” could lose. This is the night’s big crowd pleaser, and Fey kills it.
In this preview for the third season of Netflix ’80s sci-fi throwback Stranger Things, Eleven (Portman) and Mike (Day) go to a warehouse and meet others who have supernatural abilities. Of course, Eleven is a telekinetic whose nose bleeds when she uses her power. Fourteen (Bennett) starts fires with his mind but throws up in his mouth a little bit when he does it; Nine (Strong) reads minds but farts afterward; one random guy (Luke Null) makes great chili but bleeds from the skull as a result. All the while, the wildly horny Mike is trying to figure out ways to kiss Eleven or do some “over the jeans stuff.” The rapid-fire succession of jokes and characters works in this one, heightening an idea to absurd places pretty quickly.
Just as with the setup of the original “Natalie Rap,” an interviewer (Bennett) asks questions of Portman until she launches into a fierce, foul-mouthed verse. Portman insists that things are different than they were 12 years ago, because she’s mature, married, and has a kid now. Then we see the pregnant Portman “drown the doctor” when her water breaks and point a gun at an innocent bystander until he says nice things about Jar Jar Binks. A singing Viking (Andy Samberg) also croons his love, while the interviewer notes that the rap is “almost exactly the same, but with current references.” Nevertheless, Portman’s steely delivery, nods to Cardi B and trap, and all of the great details about dildos on switchblades make this second round completely worth it.
Michael Che and Colin Jost consider Trump’s State of the Union speech and the declassified Devin Nunes memo in the first half. How useful could the memo be when it cherry-picks information? Jost compares it to a blurb for a Transformers 5 that says “It blew my mind …” when the full quote is “It blew my mind that God allowed this.” Che likens Trump, who took credit for low black unemployment numbers, to white women who take credit for “Yass, queen.” Then French actresses Brigitte Bardot (McKinnon) and Catherine Deneuve (Strong) come on to defend their controversial positions against the #MeToo movement. While Deneuve tries moderation, the older Bardot yells out, “Free Harvey Weinstein,” and claims that women have breasts only “for a man to grab and pull.” Strong and McKinnon play well together and make a cogent point, too.
In the second half, Jost tells a joke about Mel Gibson’s sequel to Passion of the Christ; it doesn’t go over all that well with the audience, but the banter with Che and off-camera ad libs (“Nailed it!”) are fantastic. Pete Davidson arrives to talk about filming an ad for Dockers, which wasn’t easy because the job was asking people on the street to take off their pants during the height of the Weinstein revelations. Davidson is charming, as always. After a couple quick jokes about emotional-support birds, Kenan Thompson comes on as Che’s cheery, gullible neighbor Willie. To cheer up everyone about the cold month of February, Willie talks about buying cheap mattresses from the police auction and blow-up dolls for company. The material doesn’t work all that well, but Thompson is winning.
When a Star Trek starship captain (Portman) and her alien crew member Rex (Bennett) retire to the boudoir, the captain assures Rex that she understands all bodies are built differently. “Heads up,” Rex tells her, “My butt is my face and my face is my butt.” Then the scaly blue alien flips over, cheeks jiggling as they ask to be spooned and pour a gin and tonic all over their newly revealed face. The captain is sympathetic, but a little turned off. Then Rex pees from what would be their face holes. The premise is fun, but there’s something about watching Bennett’s butt for half the sketch that doesn’t quite pay off. If only they could un-pants him on national TV and put some kind of second face on his butt cheeks!
On the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards orange carpet, Dexter Hill (Day) and Allie Jackson (Portman) are ready for fun. After encouraging the kids to scream for the Scream-o-meter, Jackson loses her voice. The “Zany Zoom” just isn’t as much fun when the host has laryngitis. Producers then give Allie a voice amplifier like the kind one might use after a tracheotomy; this only serves to scare the crap out of the kids, as well as Ellen DeGeneres (McKinnon). There are funny specifics here, like handing out an award for “Best Actor in a Jumanji Movie,” but the what-did-you-say? gag just can’t fill an entire sketch.
The State of the Union is about to start, and Melania Trump (Strong) can’t convince herself to suck it up, get in the car, and go watch it. She wishes she could talk to someone who understood her pain, and suddenly, Jackie Onassis (Portman) arrives to calm her about Donald’s affair with Stormy Daniels. In rapid succession, Hillary Clinton (McKinnon), Martha Washington (Bryant), and Michelle Obama (Jones) also stop by to give advice about making a political marriage work. Jackie talks pride; Hillary, sacrifice; Martha, duty; and Michelle boasts about her arms and being president whenever she wants. Though it’s a fun idea and a great stage picture, the energy in this one feels a little diffuse.
As three girlfriends (Strong, Gardner, and Portman) talk about their dating woes, a Carhartt-clad bargoer named Bunny (Bryant) announces that they’re all being too picky. Weirdos who offer foot massages on the train can work wonders on the tootsies! Bunny herself has been busy catfishing guys and “munching on carrot.” Of course, she understands if they’re distraught about the ubiquity of circumcised penises, but she could “take a short sleeve as quick as a turtleneck.” Eventually, she lowers the group’s standards and walks away with one of her internet dupes. Bunny is a fun, saucy character and it’s always nice to see Bryant carry her own sketches.
Natalie Portman once again proves herself an adept SNL host, playing it straight or goofy as needed. Her commitment to the rap alone is admirable. Though the cold open isn’t particularly inspired, there are excellent sketches at the top of the show, including the great drop-ins from Dratch and Fey. Update is solid, top to bottom, but once that segment is over, the episode drops off a bit. Seems like Olympics broadcasting will take up some airtime for a while; the next announced SNL is March 3 with host Charles Barkley.