Houston, we have a problem. Natalie Portman goes off the deep end in the feature debut from Noah Hawley creator of the FX shows “Legion” and “Fargo.” Loosely based on real-life NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak who drove 900-miles while wearing a diaper (for less pit stops) to attack her astronaut lover and his new girlfriend, “Lucy in the Sky” benefits from Portman’s performance which heads into “Fatal Attraction” territory. It’s an intoxicating trip albeit unbalanced at times but quirky enough to appeal to those who love their cinema a bit on the odd side.
Originally developed for Reese Witherspoon from a script by Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, it easy to picture the Oscar winning actress in the role but other commitments separated her from the film (she’s still listed as producer) paving the way for Portman to step in as Lucy Cola, a NASA astronaut forever changed by her trip into space.
The film opens with Lucy floating in space as the Earth whizzes by below. The celestial view through her helmet is mind blowing. Once back home in Houston with placid husband Drew (Dan Stevens) and teenage niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson), BTW I love the names in this film, we watch as Lucy begins to ponder the meaning of life. She doesn’t understand how she’s expected to fall back into a normal routine and do stuff like go to Appleby’s after “seeing the whole universe” from outer space.
NASA psychologist Will Plimpton (a heavily bearded Nick Offerman) tries to help after seeing other astronauts fall apart from the isolation experienced while in orbit but Lucy puts up a façade to show how she’s mentally stable and physical fit (an avid runner) hoping that she’ll be chosen to go back up as soon as possible. She’s a space junkie who can’t wait to get another hit of the mind-altering drug that gave her the euphoric high.
Hawley uses lots of flashbacks and toys around with the film’s aspect ratio to try and put the audience in Lucy’s state of mind, but it proves to be distracting instead of immersive. Adding to the film’s mystique is a haunting rendition of the Lennon-McCartney classic by Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo (“Fargo”) and Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. It’s uses in the film’s trailer and during a scene where Lucy gets some devastating news produces the same creepy effect that Luniz’ “I Got 5 on It” had in Jordan Peele’s “Us.”
Had the film remained in an Alice falling down the rabbit hole mode it would have been interesting to see it evolve into some sort of David Lynchian journey, but Hawley shifts the tone as it begins to mirror the real-life incident by NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak.
Lucy begins having an affair with playboy astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) who’s dealing with his own personal issues, at least in once scene where he sits on his couch watching the clip of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion over and over again. FYI, it’s good to see Mark drinking a Bud Light instead of Lone Star or Shiner which every other character is drinking because of course the film is set in Texas.
The wonderful Zazie Beetz (Joaquin’s object of affection in “Joker”) is cast as young astronaut Erin Eccles who becomes the third wheel in the NASA love triangle as she also begins seeing Mark and there’s an appearance by Academy Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn as Lucy’s crabby grandmother or “Nana” who’s always ready to dispense advice.
The movie enters melodrama in the final chapter but thanks to Portman it’s fun watching her spiral out of control ripping down wallpaper and sporting a blonde wig as she heads for a showdown in a parking garage with Mark and Erin, the film could have been subtitled “The Wrong Stuff.”
The narrative and Hawley’s direction aren’t very cohesive but “Lucy in the Sky” is still a mesmerizing journey worth taking thanks to Portman’s portrayal of a woman questioning her purpose in life after witnessing the epic beauty of the infinite universe from 254 miles above the Earth.