On paper, perhaps, or in a pitch meeting, one can see how the story of Capt. Lisa Nowak makes for a compelling drama.
You might recall the story of the astronaut who, in early 2007, was arrested in Florida (where she had driven from Houston) and charged with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, who happened to be dating astronaut William Oefelein, a former lover of Nowak’s.
While the presence of astronaut-grade adult diapers was the aspect of the story onto which late-night TV hosts glommed — Nowak claimed she never actually wore them on that car trip — it was a disturbing story of a mental health crisis among a population frequently held up as heroes by default. There is definitely something there, perhaps a small-bore film about professional pressure, sex and mental illness.
Unfortunately, that something is not in “Lucy in the Sky.”
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Directed within an inch of its life by Austin's Noah Hawley, an often-brilliant TV showrunner (“Legion” and “Fargo” are must-watches), “Lucy in Sky” uses Nowak’s story as a jumping-off point to explore one Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman, rocking both a deeply unflattering Dorothy Hamill bob and the sort of Texas accent people who aren’t from Texas think Texans have).
Cola is type-A all the way, a Lone Star scrapper who's never met a goal she couldn’t achieve. Her beta-male husband, Drew (a mustachioed Dan Stevens with a perfect accent), works for NASA PR. Her tough-old-bird grandmother (Ellen Burstyn, perfect) is still a large part of her life; the story can’t seem to decide or communicate clearly if the grandmother raised Lucy or was just around a lot. Her niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) seems to be around mostly to bear witness and remind the audience Lucy’s brother is a failure and Lucy has a lot on her plate, indeed.
Things start to change for Lucy when she returns from space, as it might for anyone who sees our big blue marble against the vast maybe-nothing that is the cosmos. At first, she seems fine physically, even as she is overwhelmed by the wonder of what she just saw and thinks of little but going back. Her colleagues (Tig Notaro and Jeffrey Donovan, both spot-on) assure her that this is normal, and that her brain will adjust to her new perspective.
But soon Lucy is engaging is riskier and riskier behavior, starting an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm, still good at drinking a lot and falling asleep on his office couch a la Don Draper) and feeling intense professional and personal jealousy toward a younger astronaut (Zazie Beetz, for whom we want better things than this and "Joker").
Soon it becomes hard to tell what the tone of this movie is supposed to be. Hawley, who wrote the script with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi in addition to directing, futzes with the aspect ratio so much (small and square to signify Lucy’s earthbound state of mind, wider when we’re in space or her mind is) that it starts to look like a compulsion. The psychedelic touches that work so brilliantly on “Legion” fall flat here and look downright comical.
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The characterization of Lucy herself might be the most disappointing aspect. When a superior mentions that she has become “too emotional” for the job, we are supposed to be as outraged as Lucy is — Portman plays the moment beautifully, barely sublimating her seething anger. And indeed, it is a stupid, deeply sexist and possibly actionable thing for a boss to say.
Except the previous two acts (the movie is about two hours but feels like four) have established that Lucy is kind of losing her mind, that she is indeed taking the vastness of space a bit too personally and that she is willing to take risks that put her fellow astronauts in harm's way — her boss is absolutely right to pull her. It's a moment that asks us for a sympathy the rest of the movie hasn't made the case for.
Which is the larger problem with "Lucy" — as Hawley throws all sorts of effects and music cues at the screen, the essential tragedy becomes lost. After a decent launch, the mission becomes bloated and the film burns up on re-entry.