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Review: 'Lucy in the Sky' struggles to address the struggle for meaning

Natalie Portman in "Lucy in the Sky"

Natalie Portman in "Lucy in the Sky" Fox Searchlight Pictures

In the opening shot of Lucy in the Sky, astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) floats in space, looking down at Earth’s nighttime glow from tens of thousands of feet overhead. The view gives her a whole new perspective—or does it warp her existing perspective?

That’s the central conflict of director Noah Hawley’s debut film: Does seeing the bigger picture provide us insights into ourselves, or might it scramble our very concept of identity?

To convey this, Hawley uses the gimmicky visual motif of a constantly shifting aspect ratio. Space’s widescreen splendor is replaced with narrow panoramas of life on Earth, or the cloistered confines of old-school 4:3 television framing, with Lucy’s whole world literally closing in around her. It’s the kind of showy aesthetic choice that comes off like a stroke of genius in a great movie and a blunt instrument in a bad one. Here it’s an intriguing distraction in a handsomely rendered, mostly deflated drama.

We can tell Cola is bound to leave her nice-guy husband (Dan Stevens) in his first scene, when he asks his type-A wife to open a jar of jam for him. (“Weak hands,” he later confesses.) Stevens’ character is the kind of thankless role that would definitely have gone to Bill Pullman 20 years prior.

Lucy soon falls for fellow astronaut Mark, a charming cad (Jon Hamm). Her poor doorstop of a husband aptly describes motorcycle-riding ladykiller Mark as “a divorced action hero who likes to go fast.” Lucy’s infatuation with Mark, as well as her rivalrous relationship with another astronaut, Erin (Zazie Beetz), isn’t so much the cause of Lucy’s breakdown as the manifested symptoms of it. It’s all fallout from her broken perspective, coupled with twin personal crises involving her beloved grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and her obsession with returning to space immediately.

Hawley stages Lucy in the Sky as a reclamation project. The story is a fictionalized riff on the true tale of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who in 2007 was accused of driving partway across the country and attempting to kidnap a fellow NASA employee who was dating Nowak’s spaceman crush. Nowak’s public breakdown was condensed into lurid headlines that heavily focused on the tawdry—and never verified—rumor that she wore an adult diaper during her frantic drive toward infamy.

Hawley seems to want to obliterate the simplistic notion of a brilliant woman turned crazypants by hormonal lust. It’s a noble goal, and one at which he partly succeeds. Portman is excellent, both flinty and highly vulnerable, and the film does significantly recontextualize Lucy’s inevitable breakdown.

But is film really the best way to make this argument? Lucy in the Sky is astutely composed but rarely cinematic. Hawley is also the TV showrunner of Fargo and Legion as well as a novelist; strange that he’s chosen for a first movie a subject so awkwardly unbefitting cinema. It’s like watching someone try to play basketball in a space suit. His cast is dynamite—Beetz and Hamm are always welcome presences, and Burstyn has rarely been better—yet the mission probably should have been scrubbed. Perhaps Hawley, like his protagonist, lost perspective.

Lucy in the Sky
Director: Noah Hawley
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now playing