LUCY IN THE SKY (Noah Hawley). 124 minutes. Opens Friday (October 11). See listing. Rating: NNN
Very loosely inspired by the 2007 arrest of Lisa Nowak, the NASA mission specialist who drove from Houston to Florida to confront a colleague she believed to her romantic rival, Lucy In The Sky marks a big, bold swing for first-time filmmaker Noah Hawley and his star Natalie Portman. And if the whole thing doesn’t really come together, I’m kind of amazed it exists at all.
You may not remember Nowak’s name – I had to look it up – but you almost certainly remember the diaper astronaut, right? Or, more specifically, you remember the popular version of that story, which was packaged as weird news: Nowak supposedly wore adult diapers on her drive, so she wouldn’t have to take bathroom breaks.
Nowak denied that detail, and if you think about it for a couple of minutes it makes no sense anyway: it’s a 14-hour drive, she couldn’t make it without stopping for gas.
Hawley’s film leaves out the diapers, which spurred some obnoxious commentary at TIFF last month: why wouldn’t you include the thing everybody remembers? But that’s his point: Lucy In The Sky is about telling the story without any of the leering, infantilizing details. This isn’t a movie about the humiliations of the diaper astronaut; it’s a study of Lucy Cola, a confident, capable engineer who’s been to goddamn space. After two weeks in orbit, who wouldn’t have a little trouble readjusting to life on the ground?
Unable to reconnect with her husband (Dan Stevens), Lucy is drawn to a louche astronaut (Jon Hamm) who says he understands what she’s going through. Maybe he does, or maybe he just wants another conquest. In any case, he’s just one of several bad decisions that send Lucy drifting toward personal disaster. And when it comes, her despair is entirely believable and achingly human.
The film isn’t interested in giggling at a caricature. Hawley wants us to see the desperation and compulsion that brought this woman – or his fictional version of her, anyway – to the lowest point in her life.
If you’re familiar with Hawley’s TV work, this makes perfect sense. Fargo and Legion are both about people pushed into corners until they have no choice (in their minds, anyway) but to push back. He employs a baroque, distinctly cinematic aesthetic, treating every episode of television as though it was a profound, intimate epic. And now that he’s making a proper feature, he expands and amplifies his toolbox to suit that much larger canvas, using shifting aspect ratios and the odd hallucinatory musical sequence to convey Lucy’s sense of alienation.
Maybe he pushes a little too hard. The auteur flourishes prove overwhelming on the big screen, threatening to flatten the fragile story at its core. But if the film is too stylized to settle down and really breathe with its protagonist, Portman is still remarkable as a woman disintegrating from the inside out.
Going smaller and smaller as the movie around her gets bigger and bigger, she delivers one of the most moving performances of her career. People might miss it in all the sound and fury, but it’s there.