Reviewed on October19, 2019
Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley has made his leap to feature filmmaking with Lucy in the Sky, a drama inspired by the true story of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak.
In 2007, Nowak famously drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando to kidnap a romantic rival, wearing an adult diaper so she wouldn’t have to stop for bathroom breaks. It’s one of those “too-nuts-to-be-believed” stories that seems tailor made for cinema, especially from a filmmaker with Hawley’s gifts for dryly funny dialogue and wackadoo head trips.
Lucy in the Sky is a tonal mess that eventually disintegrates like so much space debris, but Hawley deserves this much credit at least: he’s committed to sympathizing with his protagonist, even at her most unhinged. It’s an admirable quality, even if it does prove to be the movie’s eventual undoing.
What’s it about?
When we meet astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), she’s performing a spacewalk, shortly before heading back to earth at the end of her mission. Floating in low-orbit, seeing the earth for the first time from space, she feels fundamentally changed by the experience in a way she can’t really quantify.
Back on earth, Lucy’s mission is to get back into orbit as soon as possible. She feels distant from her kind, milquetoast husband Drew (Dan Stevens), and pushed onward by her tough-as-nails nana (Ellen Burstyn), who’s pressured Lucy to excel her whole life. Lucy is also drawn toward macho fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), with whom she has a short-lived affair.
Slowly, the pressure Lucy puts on herself (not to mention the pressure she feels being one of only a few women in her field), the disconnection she feels from her life on earth, and the excitement she feels in her relationship with Mark build and push her further and further toward a mental breakdown. Her grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous, and when Mark starts seeing another astronaut, Erin (Zazie Beets), it puts Lucy over the edge.
The first two-thirds of Lucy in the Sky are languidly-paced but enjoyable, as Lucy slowly tries (and eventually fails) to readjust to her terrestrial life. Lucy briefly joins a bowling group with some fellow astronauts–a small clique in which the other members are Hamm and an extremely chill (and very welcome) Tig Notaro and Jeffrey Donovan. For a brief, weird moment, Lucy in the Sky becomes a cool hangout movie about people who have been to space, and you’re left kind of wishing it had stayed that way.
Hawley also experiments radically with image size and focus, changing the aspect ratio from scene to scene, and sometimes even within a scene itself. He’ll also pull certain scenes just barely out of focus, to the point where it doesn’t seem intentional, just very definitely off. While confusing at first, the more it’s used the clearer it becomes that this is meant to reflect Lucy’s reeling mental state, constantly adjusting to try and find some kind of framework that makes sense for what she’s feeling. It’s an interesting idea, although the experiment ultimately doesn’t work once Hawley abandons it in the third act.
That third act, where Portman’s Lucy goes off the rails completely and performs her Nowak-inspired cross-country roadtrip (sans adult diapers), completely demolishes the interesting slow build of Lucy’s breakdown. Hawley abandons the subtle visual experimentation for more overt symbolism that dumbs things down, such as a hospital scene complete with surreal edits and a de rigeur somber rock music cover.
An extra theme of sexism is thrown in, presumably to help vindicate Lucy’s actions somewhat, although it doesn’t take much scrutiny to know that Lucy’s supervisors’ conclusions about her erratic behavior are well-founded. When the person yelling about gender bias and professional rejection is standing in a parking garage wearing a wig and carrying a length of nylon rope, it makes the argument pretty hard to get behind.
We’re given no context, and no real warning, that Lucy is headed in this direction. Portman’s performance neglects Lucy’s mania almost entirely until the movie decides to crank it up. Although Hawley is clearly trying to keep us in Lucy’s headspace throughout the movie, the film hasn’t done enough work to this point to keep us on board with her once she goes into overdrive.
Lucy in the Sky is two-thirds of a good movie and one-third of a completely different one that, while not necessarily bad, clashes with everything else around it like a poorly-matched outfit. It’s admirable that Hawley doesn’t want this to be the story of a hysterical woman, but rather the story of a real person who had a very bad mental slip. However, you can’t really explain Lisa Nowak, or, by extension, Lucy Cola’s behavior as anything other than hysterical–even if it was the result of an actual breakdown in an otherwise admirable human being. By trying to hold back for so long, Lucy in the Sky fails to prepare itself for the tone change it knows is coming, and burns up spectacularly upon impact.