Toronto: 'Lucy in the Sky' Is in Awards Season Jeopardy Despite a Strong Natalie Portman Turn

I call it "The Natalie Portman Rule": Natalie Portman is always great, but the same cannot be said for the movies in which she chooses to appear.

Portman wasn't supposed to star in Lucy in the Sky, the feature directorial debut of Noah Hawley, who is best known as the force behind FX's wonderful limited series FargoReese Witherspoon was, back when it was called Pale Blue Dot, but she pulled out in order to be part of a second season of HBO's limited series Big Little Lies. (Witherspoon stayed on as a producer of Lucy.) So Portman stepped in to play the title character, a female astronaut — based on a real person, Lisa Nowak (minus the diapers) — who is severely psychologically changed after returning to earth from her first trip to space. Based on the current 11% favorable rating for the film on Rotten Tomatoes following its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere on Sept. 11 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, she probably wishes she hadn't.

The premise of the film, which was written by Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Hawley, and which Fox Searchlight will release on Oct. 4, is an interesting one. For the last 50 years — ever since Michael Collins was left alone on Apollo 11 while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and then the three of them returned to the earth and were kept in quarantine — people have speculated about the psychological toll that space travel takes on an astronaut, and the frustration astronauts must feel upon returning to everyday life after seeing the world from a perspective others never have. But it turns out that this topic may be better explored in a shorter format than two hours and four minutes — perhaps an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror — rather than stretched into a feature-length film.

Portman's straight-laced Lucy is married to a sweet but stodgy fellow NASA employee (Dan Stevens, with a terrible accent), acts as a guardian for a neglected niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) and is close with her grandmother (fellow best actress Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn). After Lucy completes her mission, though, they don't seem as exciting to her as they used to, so she embarks on an affair with a fellow astronaut who has been to space (Jon Hamm) — but even he warns her that she is merely trying to recapture the dopamine rush that she felt when she was looking down at the whole world. When she discovers that he has become romantically involved with a younger astronaut (Zazie Beetz), and that the younger astronaut will get to go on the next mission, rather than her, well, she snaps, setting off a bonkers third act.

Sure, there are some clunky things about the film — among them, titling it "Lucy in the Sky" and then playing the Elton John song, relentlessly changing aspect-ratios for no discernible reason and having Burstyn say to Portman, "All that astronaut dick has made you soft." But the truth is the film doesn't deserve the vitriol it has attracted — thanks to cinematographer Polly Morgan and production designer Stefania Cella, it actually looks pretty cool, not least in one long weird shot in which Portman seems to move through rooms without walking. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, its only real hope for any sort of awards recognition — and even this would be a bit of a long shot — is Portman's performance, for she, as usual, pulls her weight.