'Lucy in the Sky': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Makes a hard landing.
10/4/2019

Natalie Portman plays an astronaut struggling to adjust to life back on Earth in Noah Hawley's feature directorial debut.

Lucy in the Sky is the odd film that starts cosmically big and gradually becomes narrower and more conventional as it goes along, to diminishing returns. This first feature film by Noah Hawley, the main driver of the Fargo television series, brims with offbeat storytelling and visual ideas that initially combine to quietly appealing effect. But the final stretch erupts into overt, over-the-top melodrama that feels jarring after all that’s come before, leaving Fox Searchlight with a curious “inspired by real events” piece that falls between the cracks of a distinctive character study and a ramped-up yarn of sexual jealousy in the military. It looks to be a short flight commercially.

Evidently set sometime in the 1990s, the script by Hawley, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi promisingly presents astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) as a young woman transformed by her experience of being tethered in space outside a space shuttle during a mission. “Just a few more minutes,” she pleads when it’s time to come back aboard, and upon her return home all she wants is to get back up there.

Although Lucy’s got an ultra-supportive family waiting for her, a simple, normal life just doesn’t seem like it’s going to do it for her any longer. The first thing she does is sign up as a candidate for a return trip, possibly in three years at the earliest. And instantly realizing that her sweet, devotedly religious, milquetoast husband Drew (Dan Stevens) isn’t ringing her bells any longer, the second thing she does is to throw herself into a hot affair with fellow astronaut Mark (Jon Hamm), who flatters her by guessing that “I’ll bet you never came in second in anything.” Her mind, body and perspective have graduated to a higher level. She proclaims that she’s “never felt so alive,” and it’s easy to see why.

From a visual p.o.v., Hawley seems determined to try out a whole bunch of ideas and see what sticks. At first, his efforts at emphasizing the life-changing aspect of Lucy’s experience are reasonably successful. By contrast, sometimes his shot selection seems quite arbitrary, and not always the most felicitous for what he’s trying to accomplish.

But most noticeable is his frequent alteration of aspect ratios based upon what he’s trying to achieve in a given scene. When the world seems to be opening up to Lucy, everything expands to widescreen. But when things become intimate and/or troubled, Hawley narrows the proceedings to what appears to be a 1.37x1 aspect ratio. This alternation can happen within a minute or two. When the ratios shift repeatedly and rapidly, the maneuver draws so much attention to itself that it defeats the presumed purpose. However, when the changes come more appropriately and less frequently, the gambit may be said to pay off.

Storywise, Drew comes off as such a decent, square, good-natured soul that you hate to see him cast so easily aside, but Lucy’s need to move on is manifest. Mark is such a great-looking guy that he seems to be able to have the pick of anyone, and it’s not long until Lucy’s space-born fantasy of herself as a kind of superwoman comes crashing back to Earth.

It then seems like the film is headed into Fatal Attraction revenge territory, with Lucy going ballistic and attempting some drastic sort of retribution in the manner of the actual NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. This sort of scenario wouldn’t play out too well for audiences in the current political climate, real story or not, and fortunately the pic does go in a somewhat different direction at the end.

But well before this point it’s become clear that the movie’s loftier ambitions, literally and figuratively, are being significantly diminished amid all the melodrama. A film that initially seemed to be aiming in the direction of a female-oriented companion piece to the presently arriving Ad Astra instead contents itself to live in the normal world of sexual jealousies and revenge. It’s disappointing after all the early indications that it might have something else on its mind.

Lucy in the Sky features one of Portman’s more histrionic performances, one in which she sports a pretty pronounced Southern accent. Hamm could not seem more at ease playing the base’s number one cad, and it’s nice to see Ellen Burstyn in the household to fire off some rude little ripostes as Lucy’s grandma.

Production companies: Pacific Standard, 26 Keys
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo, Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro, Pearl Amanda Dickson, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Noah Hawley
Screenwriters: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley
Producers: Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Noah Hawley, John Cameron
Executive producers: Molly Allen, Leigh Kittay, Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi
Director of photography: Polly Morgan
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Regis Kimble
Music: Jeff Russo
Casting: Ronna Kress
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Rated R, 126 minutes