Lucy in the SkyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/03/19 13:47:54
There are, I suppose, any number of approaches that one could use in making a movie inspired by the story of Lisa Nowak, the one-time NASA astronaut who landed in tabloid infamy when she became involved in a romantic triangle that eventually ended in an attempted kidnapping that found her so determined to reach her target in time that (and this was the bit that made headlines around the world) she allegedly wore adult diapers during the trip to avoid having to make stops along the way. It could be told as a straightforward drama of obsession and madness that strove to understand her mind and what drove her to do what she did. It could be an oddball Coen Brothes-type film that relegated the admittedly strange story with weirdo humor and irony. It could be a straight-up exploitation movie that reveled in the lurid details that might have left viewers feeling both entertained and unclean. There are many, many problems with “Lucy in the Sky,” a film very loosely inspired by the Nowak story, but the biggest one by far is that I could never figure out what it was trying to say at any given point. Presumably launched into production the moment that “I, Tonya,” another film touching upon a tabloid-friendly scandal, became a critical and commercial hit, this is a real mess of a film that never finds the right tone at any given point (despite going through a number of them) or demonstrates any particular reason for its existence. The end result may not necessarily go down as the worst film of 2019—though it is certainly in the running—but it will almost certainly be ranked as perhaps the most utterly baffling of the bunch.The film stars—maybe “wastes” is a better word—Natalie Portman as the Nowak equivalent, renamed Lucy Cola here, and when we first see her, she is in the middle of a spacewalk and the experience of floating in the vastness of space literally blows her mind—when the commander of the mission tells her to come in, she begs for just a few more minutes in the manner of a little kid at a swimming pool. After returning home, it becomes apparent that while she was trained to execute her duties with flawless precision, the one thing that she was not trained to do was properly process the experience once she returns to Earth. Ostensibly, things are fine—she reunites with her lovably dorky husband, NASA publicist Drew (Dan Stevens) and finds that her slacker brother has dropped off her niece, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) , for an increasingly extended stay—but everything that once seemed normal to Lucy now seems a bit off. This is understandable, of course—if you had just traveled out into space and was able to float around in it while contemplating the sheer enormity of the cosmos, it is kind of hard to shift from that to such comparatively mundane tasks as going to the store or picking up someone after school. Worse, as much as she cares for her husband, niece and adorably cantankerous grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), she can’t really talk about it with them because they simply have no frame of reference to her comparatively singular experience.
The only people who could possibly have any inkling about what she is feeling is, of course, other astronauts who have gone through the same experience and while resuming training in the hopes of going back to space as soon as possible, she meets fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). Before long, their mild workplace flirtation has blossomed into a clandestine romance that Mark clearly regards as just another fling but which Lucy pursues with the relentless determination that she applies to everything else in her life. Unfortunately for her, she pushes her pursuit of both a new mission and Mark too far—her superiors take her out of the running and insist that she take some time off while Mark begins seeing yet another astronaut, Erin Eccles (Zasie Beetz)—and the double rejection proves too much for her to handle, inspiring her long-distance “mission,” complete with her increasingly worried niece along for the ride, to intercept Mark in San Diego and get him back by any means necessary and with a trunk filled with rope, knives and insect repellent to use if necessary.
“Lucy in the Sky” marks the feature film debut of Noah Hawley, perhaps best known for using the Coen Brothers classic “Fargo” into an inspired crime anthology series (a venue where this particular story might have actually flourished). However, based on a viewing of this film, you would have no indication that the person responsible had ever even watched “Fargo” before, let alone served as the driving force behind its unique blend of dark humor, offbeat characters and narratives that successfully juggled any number of tonal shifts with shocking ease. There are any number of reasons why the original story so captured the imagination of millions for a time—ranging from the weirdo detail of the adult diapers to the way that it ascribed outsized human emotions to a group of people whose entire line of work revolved around their cool reserve in the most extreme of situations—but Hawley and co-writers Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi don’t seem to have the slightest idea of what any of them could possibly be. Right from the start, it is apparent that the film is going to avoid wallowing in the more lurid aspects of the story (to the point where even the infamous adult diaper—the one element that everyone recalls from the narrative—has been completely removed from the narrative) in order to take a more elevated approach. Fine, but it doesn’t take much longer to realize that they have no clear concept of what it is they want to say or how they want to convey it. As a drama, it is flat-out dull for the most part and offers no real insight into the events that it depicts—it has an interesting notion in the idea of a person trying to adjust to life back on Earth after journeying through the stars but the only way that it can think to express any of that is the increasingly tiresome gimmick of changing the aspect ratio of the frame throughout, sometimes to suggest what is going on in Lucy’s mind and sometimes seemingly for the hell of it.
As a character study, it is even more inept because we never get any real feeling of the self-imposed pressures that drive Lucy to her extreme actions, a lack of empathy that no amount of visual gimmickry can possibly overcome—the message, when all is said and done, appears to be little more than “Man, women are so emotional—am I right?.” What the film lacks in real insight, it inexplicably makes up for with a startling degree of misogyny that permeates many of the scenes. In space, she may come across as a starry-eyed dreamer but when she returns to Earth, she almost instantly turns into a monstrously self-involved and increasingly delusional type who flies off the handle when things do not go her way and responds with charges of sexism when her superiors finally call her on her increasingly erratic behavior. By the end, when she is setting off on her big mission (after stocking up on supplies at a store that conveniently places all of the kidnapping equipment—including a blonde wig—on the same shelf) and dragging her niece along for the ride, the film feels practically gleeful in how far she has fallen.The worst thing about “Lucy in the Sky” is that there are elements scattered here and there that suggest what this story might have been like in more competent hands. The opening spacewalk sequence is an undeniably trippy moment—you can readily understand why Lucy doesn’t want to leave it for the mundanity of home. The performance by Portman is perhaps not one of her great ones but she certainly commits to it—no matter how ill-advised or sexist the material gets at times, she does not hold back at all. (Hamm and Burstyn also give good performances, although Stevens and Beetz are pretty much wasted, the latter even more so than she is in “Joker.”) The final sequence, depicting Lucy’s botched attack and arrest, has a lurid liveliness to it that suggests a Brian De Palma film and makes one wonder how it might have turned out if it had taken a more overtly melodramatic route. Maybe a trashy approach would not have ultimately worked wither but it could not have possibly been more ill-advised, insensitive and tonally askew as this misbegotten stab at elevated pulp. Too junky to be taken seriously and too dull to work as junk, “Lucy in the Sky” is a mission that clearly should have been scrubbed long before it went in front of the cameras.
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