Lucy in the Sky had all the elements of a great movie: Natalie Portman! Space! A hot affair with Jon Hamm! A lurid, sensational true story involving a scorned lover, a diaper, and a drugstore wig! If not Oscar-worthy, it should, at the very least, have been mildly interesting.
Reader, it is boring.
Inspired by true events, Noah Hawley’s film is billed as an attempt to understand the motivations behind Lisa Nowak’s 2007 headline-grabbing stunt, when the decorated astronaut drove 900 miles to confront her former lover and his new girlfriend. Portman plays Lucy Cola, a character loosely based on Nowak, who has trouble adjusting to civilian life after a mission in space. That part is enough to grasp, and a fascinating premise to explore — how can you care about picking up dry cleaning when you’ve caught a glimpse of the larger universe? That larger existential question is supposed to elevate the sordid details of what comes next.
Back on Earth, and unable to cope with the everyday grind, Lucy begins a steamy relationship with a fellow astronaut, Mark Goodwin (Hamm). Brawny, cocky, and thrilling, he’s in every way opposite to Lucy’s affable, supportive, and devout husband Drew (Dan Stevens). He also has the benefit of understanding what Lucy’s been through.As members of an ultra-exclusive club of “humans who have been to space and back,” they’re able to commiserate in a way that she and Drew, who works in NASA’s PR department, simply can’t, no matter how good his salad-making skills are.
But as Lucy’s alienation gets more pronounced, her relationship with Mark unravels, and who moves on to a younger, more impressionable alternative: Lucy’s NASA colleague Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz). (True story or not, it’s a disappointing twist that a woman who has achieved the physically and mentally demanding feat of going to space is eventually undone by her relationship with a man.) To add insult to injury, her male superiors deny her the opportunity of qualifying for the next mission, on the grounds that she’s not in the right mental state.
The real problem with Lucy in the Sky is that Hawley doesn’t seem to know what story he wants to tell. Is it a movie about a woman grappling with her own inconsequential existence in the face of a larger universe? About a relationship gone sour? About the systemic misogyny that allows women to be gaslit into believing they’re not good enough, even as their male colleagues progress? By not fully committing to any one of these threads, the movie doesn’t end up saying much of anything.
Instead, you get the sense of a filmmaker who is desperately trying to be “deep.” Bird’s eye views of neighborhoods abound — because Lucy’s head is still in the sky, get it? Character-building is replaced with the sound of deep, heavy breathing, and slow motion shots of levitating bodies. And don’t get me started on the woo-woo cover of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which plays over a shot of Lucy gliding through a hospital corridor, illustrating her complete detachment from the world around her.
Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown’s screenplay, which Hawley revised, is equally empty. A compelling kernel of a story about a capable, professional women being gaslit by her male colleagues is drowned in the coucou hysteria inexplicably written into Lucy’s character. Portman does her best to make her worthy of empathy, but we still get the sense that the film isn’t quite on her side. It’s hard to begrudge Mark’s email to a NASA supervisor claiming that she isn’t quite ready for another mission into space when everything she does appears to support that. A heartfelt speech to her niece, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) who’s been let down by her deadbeat father, about women having to step up in this world, rings hollow when it’s followed by Lucy essentially kidnapping her on her quest for revenge.
That’s not to say that having an unsympathetic female protagonist is a bad thing — take Melissa McCarthy’s turn as the curmudgeonly and misanthropic Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, for example. But that doesn’t seem to be the intention here, which makes it all come off as a bungled, male-gazey interpretation of a woman’s suffering.
Rather than exploit the kind of emotional ambiguity that could lead the audience to mistrust our own assumptions about Lucy, the movie presents a pretty clear-cut situation. But if that’s the case, Hawley should have gone full steam ahead — instead, he tries to side-step the “unhinged vengeful woman” trope” and thus omits the most publicized detail of the story: the diaper Nowak allegedly wore to avoid stopping for bathroom breaks on her drive. By trying to protect Lucy from her own story, Lucy in the Sky patronizes, rather than understands her.
The weaker trappings of Lucy in the Sky can’t quite obscure what is ultimately a memorable Portman performance. With a bowl-cut mouse-brown wig, jean mini-skirt, and thick, chompy, Holly Hunter-accent, she could easily veer into caricature, but makes this role her own.
She seamlessly transitions from quietly contemplating a sunrise one minute, to vibrating with rageful purpose, dressed in her dead grandmother’s red cowboy boots, the next. In one particularly tense scene, Lucy is undergoing a training exercise in a deep pool when her helmet starts to leak. Even as water pours in, she remains calm, focusing on the task at hand until she has to be physically pulled away by her colleagues. She emerges, and just like Lucy, we’re left with a disappointing reality after a brief glimpse at the wondrous possibilities.