Before even starting a review of Lucy in the Sky, can we at least agree that in a more just cosmos, it would be the new Natalie Portman movie that centers on an astronaut who suffers a personal loss that just makes her so ludicrously good at her job, her supervisors have no choice but to send her on a difficult mission with the fate of humanity at stake even as it becomes increasingly obvious that she’s ready to crack; while the new Brad Pitt movie would be the one about an astronaut who goes on one mission, starts to see things a little differently, and slips into a personal indiscretion that leads to a quixotic, self-destructive road trip with his niece riding shotgun while he mumbles space shit?
Well, that’s not the universe we live in. Ad Astra is what it is, with zero recognition of any privilege its white cis male hero might have enjoyed over the course of his storied career. In concept, Lucy in the Sky exposes that privilege, with a “divorced action figure” (as one character calls Jon Hamm’s Lucy character) analog to Pitt’s chiseled middle-aged voyager subjecting Portman’s eponymous achiever to behavior that proves #MeToo moments don’t stop at the stratosphere.
Director and co-writer Noah Hawley clearly had a vision for this material, enlisting Portman for what might have read like a righteous rager. Portman brought the kind of performance you’d want for a movie like that, strutting through the Johnson Space Center with the confidence of the kid who knows she can nail that robotics competition and drop a three-pointer at the buzzer, even though you’ll continue to underestimate her. Her early scenes — flipping off her grandma (Ellen Burstyn) and rattling off checklists with machine-gun precision — are incredibly fun, even inspiring.
Hawley is best-known as the showrunner behind the Fargo TV show, and he’s proven a good fit for the job in part because he shares a skillset with the Coen Brothers, who made the original Fargo movie. In the show, and in other among his projects, he creates a distinctive world tinged with magical realism, then fills it with iconic characters and unforgettable moments. An iconic character, though, is not the same as a character who’s believable, and that’s ultimately where Lucy fails to complete its mission.
You may have been waiting for it…and yes, here is the part of the review where we get into the Diaper Question. Hawley and Portman probably wish we wouldn’t, but it’s actually relevant to why this movie doesn’t work.
The film’s opening credits inform us that it was “inspired by actual events.” So, famously falsely, was Fargo…but in this case, there actually was a real-world Lucy. In 2007, Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged with the attempted kidnapping of a fellow astronaut who was romantically involved with a third NASA flyer. Infamously, she was initially reported to have worn adult diapers to reduce the number of stops she needed to make en route to rendezvous with her target, but she later said that was not the case.
The biopic fascination is undeniable. How could someone who’s excelled at a job that requires almost superhuman discipline end up involved in such an absurd criminal caper? Hawley structured a movie sympathetic to
Lisa Lucy, but in tweaking the truth he ended up with a film that rings false.
He could have approached this material with a gritty realism. Even if that was less flattering to its protagonist, it might have served her better in putting her gifts and her failings on honest display. Or, he could have adopted for a flashy meta-cinematic approach like Craig Gillespie’s in I, Tonya. That movie was not without its problematic aspects, but it did succeed in advancing a sympathetic, compelling portrait of a world-class, driven athlete who got wrapped up in a sordid assault.
Setting the diaper question aside, there’s the fact that the person Lisa Nowak attacked with pepper spray wasn’t a cad who dumped her and then stabbed her in the back professionally — it was another woman who she regarded as a rival. In tidying Lucy’s story, Hawley ends up with the worst of both worlds, a film that both makes its central character look ridiculous and implausible.
The problem is exacerbated by the gestures Hawley deploys to dramatize Lucy’s decline. There’s a cringingly obvious visual metaphor involving a chrysalis, and, yes, the Beatles song does play (a cover by Lisa Hannigan), during an out-of-body moment that only serves to remind viewers the real events that inspired this painful story are being subsumed to a pedestrian theater of the mind.