When I heard the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as a kid, I always thought the Beatles were saying “Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds.”
As the laughter of that admission subsides, and with my profound apologies to Mr. Lennon and Mr. McCartney, it occurs to me that my hearing problem applies quite aptly to Noah Hawley’s (television’s “Fargo” and “Legion”) tone-deaf film of the same name, “Lucy in the Sky,” which opens this weekend.
Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, a NASA astronaut who is one of the lucky few to have orbited the Earth; she is the Right Stuff in space, but when she returns to Earth, she loses touch with her reality. “Lucy in the Sky” is Hawley’s feature directorial debut.
The script by Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Hawley focuses on the psychological effects of trying to acclimate to life on Earth following Cola’s extended time in low earth orbit. As Cola, Portman gives a strong performance as the film tries to convey these effects from her vantage point.
Telling the story from this vantage point establishes who Cola is both as an astronaut and as a wife to Drew (Dan Stevens), a daughter to Nana (Ellen Burstyn) and an aunt to Blue (Pearl Amanda Dickson) and a mentor to Erin (Zazie Beetz). On the surface, Cola is as cool as any cucumber: she wants to get back into space, to that euphoria of openness.
Hawley’s use of the camera creates a unique vantage point, trying to tell Cola’s story from a first-person perspective. What is clear from this perspective is that Lucy focuses on being an astronaut first, trying to return to space as soon as possible. Telling the story from the first-person perspective creates gaps and distortions in how Cola responds to her external stimuli intended to shock us an audience. To counteract this, Hawley also implements a shifting aspect ratio, which is the singly most impressive aspect of the film.
The film tries to hide her descent into madness by demonstrating just how fragile her relationships are, starting with a romantic relationship with Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) out of wedlock. Goodwin is the All American astronaut with a libido to prove it. In contrast, Drew is left to be a diminutive figure, both as a way of defining her infatuation with Goodwin and the desire to return to space, to that euphoric feeling. I thought Hamm played a fly boy – type character effectively while Stevens seemed just a bit too reserved.
Cola’s relationship with her mom is strained; Nana doesn’t care about her health, yet Lucy would give her eye-tooth to spend more time with her. Interestingly, Nana suffers from a similar psychosis, leading one to believe that Cola’s own descent might be hereditary, though the film does not explicitly mention it. Ms. Burstyn’s performance is sublime.
The only character in Cola’s life that Hawley saw fit to be a stable fixture is Blue. There’s ongoing chatter between Nana and Lucy about Erin’s dad being a deadbeat and that Erin is better off staying with Drew and Lucy. When Lucy finally snaps, she takes a confused Blue on the road and the story begins to unravel as if Hawley didn’t quite know how to end Lucy’s journey. The cinematography is powerful, but the frenetic pacing of the third act just spirals out of control. It is representative of Lucy’s fall. There is a moment of lucidity that I found fascinating because it really doesn’t have a place in the film and yet, it works.
“Lucy in the Sky” is an interesting exercise in describing the psychological effects on space travel on humans. The technology used with respect to NASA looked and felt authentic and for that, I have to give the film props.
I believe that we all want to aspire to be more than the sum of our parts and there’s nothing wrong with that. Noah Hawley’s film though is not the place to start that exploration. Much like my jumbled reception of the classic Beatles’ song, this “Lucy” really was in disguise as her diamonds rapidly descend into a bottomless pit of despair.
- Lucy in the Sky