Lucy in the Sky
Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn, Tig Notaro
Director Noah Hawley’s new film “Lucy in the Sky,” based on the astronaut who’s nervous breakdown made headlines a decade ago, is more complicated than it needs to be. The most disappointing element of the film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was that there was no diaper scene. Most reading this will remember that bizarre trip Astronaut Lisa Nowak made from Houston to Orlando, wearing Depends adult-diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop to pee. Hawley takes some of the elements from the 2007-2008 scandal but omits the very things that would draw people to this movie. Hawley makes some very unusual cinematic choices, especially with perspective. The constantly changing aspect ratio, even within scenes, is bizarre and consistently reminds the viewer they are watching a screen. Hawley uses a fictional screenplay inspired by true events and attempts to derive a message that isn’t present in the facts, resulting in a film that could have been so much stronger.
“I’ve never felt so alive,” Lucy Cola (Portman) explains about her first experience in space. She did what NASA hired her for, she did her job. However, Lucy wasn’t prepared for the ways being in space affects you emotionally. “You see the whole universe, then you splashdown and go to Applebees.” Lucy is having trouble acclimating back to her small-town life in Texas. She can’t explain what she is feeling to noble husband Drew (Stevens), because he just can’t understand. So she talks to fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Hamm), described by colleagues as a divorced action figure who likes to go fast. They start an affair which turns into an obsession for Lucy until her mental state is called into question. She is taken off the crew for the next mission which means everything to her. She must return to space at all costs.
"Hawley's big mistake here is trying to tone down some of the more bizarre facts, instead of just adding to what’s already there."
Overhead shots (drone looking shots) are supposed to help the viewer into Lucy’s boots, minimalizing everything on earth. The framing from letterbox, widescreen and even panorama is supposed to evoke the constantly changing mental perspective Lucy is experiencing but it backfires and distracts the viewer out of the story. The fish-eye lens is another gimmick that diverts us from whatever’s being discussed. The facts derived out of the Nowak story are more interesting than anything Hawley comes up with. Hawley’s big mistake here is trying to tone down some of the more bizarre facts, instead of just adding to what’s already there. He creates a niece character who is completely unnecessary to this plot, yet can’t find a second to include the one thing the audience wants to see.
What Hawley ends up with is still a compelling story about a brilliant mind overwhelmed by a syndrome that according to Nowak and other astronauts, doesn’t even exist. The males in charge remove Cola from the upcoming mission because they claim she’s “too emotional” and that’s Hawley’s plot pivot. Portman elevates the story more than it deserves, she makes Cola more identifiable which again, isn’t the best way forward with this character. Burstyn is the smoking and cursing grandmother who carries a loaded gun in her purse. She gets some of the funniest dialogue in the script, reinforcing the tacky nature of this family that’s also apparent in Lucy’s wardrobe and backstory. Hamm and Stevens are just plot devices with little depth or development. “Lucy in the Sky” could have benefited more from an “I, Tonya“-type of script, focusing on the facts and abandoning the distracting technical elements. Still, the idea of an astronaut unable to cope with her return into society is fascinating on its own.
Hawley ruins an already sensational true story by smoothing over bizarre facts and adding a narrative that doesn’t do the story justice.