Lucy in the Sky could have been a camp classic. Unfortunately, first-time feature filmmaker Noah Hawley (Legion) wanted to tell a deeply profound story inspired by the true events involving astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak in the winter of 2007.
Hawley fails at telling such a story, but there are not-so-grace notes that hint at a funny, silly, bawdy movie that could’ve been. I know, I’m not supposed to write about the woulda-coulda-shoulda. It’s difficult not to when Hawley’s film is ripe for the picking, for the pointing out that buried in there is a really worthwhile comedy. As it is, Lucy in the Sky is unintentionally hysterical, and only in fits and starts. There’s Natalie Portman’s thick southern drawl, and later a blonde bobbing wig over that mop-top, and the changing aspect ratios that come and go without rhyme or reason. Polly Morgan’s photography is nimble, agile, quietly moving through the small and big spaces of Lucy’s inner and outer life. There are standout images utilizing the shifting ratio, from widescreen to full-screen and back again. And again, there’s simply no motivation behind it. There’s even a moment when, while Lucy is in the throes of passion, Hawley’s letterbox wiggles and dances around the frame. Watching Lucy in the Sky is like watching an incredibly experienced film student ply his trade for the first time, wanting to show off and try so many little tricks up his sleeve. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching Hawley try, it’s just that trying doesn’t necessarily mean succeeding. Tonally the film flits between pretentious and melodramatic, settling on the latter after Lucy really begins to lose her way, embroiling herself in an affair with another astronaut (Jon Hamm) and eventually stalking him.
On the acting front, I’ll never forget Dan Stevens’ ham-perfect impersonation of Ned Flanders as her cuckold husband, and Ellen Burstyn is a craggy hoot as Lucy’s foul-mouthed mother, a woman who’s seen it all and has zero fucks left to give anyone around her. Hamm enjoys a singular monologue about love that nearly had me wondering if I was watching a well-written drama. Portman, for her part, is either underplaying or overplaying it, rarely finding the sweet spot in between. She’s a bore when Lucy’s still got her marbles, doing chores around the house, and she’s a ham once Hamm “betrays” her and hooks up with her peer (Zazie Beetz) in the shuttle program. Portman is one of today’s best working actors, yet here she reaches for the moon and comes up short. She doesn’t get any help from a script that seems to have no idea what’s wrong with her character beyond school-age ruminations on space. It’s implied that Lucy’s time in space gave her one powerful dopamine rush that she’s now desperate to replicate, like a first-time heroin user suffering depression. An intriguing concept, but barely threaded or explored here. A third-act turn into gender power dynamics is too little too late thematically, a seeming attempt to ascribe feminist subtext to Lucy’s mission. Given her erratic and eventually dangerous behavior, it’s incredibly odd to try to frame her motivations in that way. It’s especially odd given the optics, a narrative about a girl who goes off the deep end because another man snubbed her. Doesn’t exactly sound feminist, does it?
Occasionally, the movie is just as hysterical as Lucy herself, though not nearly enough. Hawley leaves out the diapers in Nowak’s story, going for serious character study over kooky true story. It’s too bad, because Lucy in the Sky could use some diapers.