Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn
Director: Noah Hawley
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character. Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins. Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy? I’m not so sure.
Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me. Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career. Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead. She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.
The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth. I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened. Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised. So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.
Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person. As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space. Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before. During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in. Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.
Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music. Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making? Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice? What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)? How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark? Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way? Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story. Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.
Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie. Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement. I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines. The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional. It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward. Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to. Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released. That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach. It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.