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Review: Natalie Portman stays on course in the fascinatingly messy ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Natalie Portman in the movie “Lucy in the Sky.”
Natalie Portman in the movie “Lucy in the Sky.”
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

You can’t fault “Lucy in the Sky” for false advertising, and not just because a cover of the Beatles song makes a late but inevitable appearance. When we first meet Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), she is indeed hundreds of miles up, hovering alongside a NASA spacecraft as it orbits the Earth. She’s nearing the end of her mission but doesn’t want to leave (“Just a few more minutes,” she murmurs to a colleague), and you can hardly blame her. Basking in the otherworldly silence as her home planet spreads out beneath her like a glowing radioactive carpet, Lucy is overwhelmed by wonderment and heartache, and also by a piercing realization: Life will never be the same, or as beautiful as this.

It’s a despairing conclusion that she will spend the rest of this botched but beguilingly strange psychological drama trying to outrun. Vigorously overdirected by Noah Hawley, a television veteran (“Fargo,” “Legion”) making his feature debut, “Lucy in the Sky” tells the fact-based but heavily fictionalized story of an astronaut experiencing an unusually difficult reentry. Lucy seems outwardly fine after returning to her Texas home: She’s in excellent physical condition, with none of the exhaustion or muscular decay that people often experience after doing time in zero gravity. Her mind, however, has never come back to Earth; it remains stuck in the cosmos, and she longs to return there as quickly as possible.

Hawley works hard to put Lucy’s dislocation into cinematic terms, sometimes by splicing a sequence into flashbacks and flash-forwards, and sometimes by having the aspect ratio shift almost compulsively throughout. When Lucy returns from her first mission, the frame shrinks to a nearly square box, as if to match her emotional constriction; it widens again when other possibilities rear their head. Hawley is hardly the only director of late to tinker with the shape of the image — Wes Anderson and Xavier Dolan both come to mind — but I can’t recall the last movie in which the screen twitched so relentlessly, to the point where you’re not sure if you’re seeing an experimental technique or a projection malfunction.

The point of all this visual fluctuation is clear, however: Outer space has ruined ordinary life for Lucy, who begins to register her indifference through small, secretive acts of protest. No longer satisfied with the happy but humdrum home she once enjoyed with her strait-laced husband, Drew (Dan Stevens), she begins a torrid affair with a fellow astronaut, Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm, a perfect heel as always). She applies herself with even more effort than usual to the various tests and training sessions that will determine the next NASA space crew, and exchanges the occasional barb with a younger candidate, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), who just might elbow her aside.

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Natalie Portman talks about her role in “Lucy in the Sky,” a new film inspired by astronaut Lisa Nowak that did not go over well with critics at the Toronto International Film Festival.

You may have an inkling of where all this is headed, especially if you followed the story of Capt. Lisa Nowak, Lucy’s real-life inspiration. (The historical record shouldn’t be subject to spoiler warnings, but if you wish to see “Lucy in the Sky” knowing as little as possible, read no further.) In early 2007, Nowak was arrested in Orlando, Fla., and charged with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, whose boyfriend, the astronaut William Oefelein, Nowak had also been romantically involved with.

The story fascinated the public not only because it was a love triangle involving the NASA elite, but also because of the jaw-dropping nature of Nowak’s mission, as outlined by prosecutors. She had a black wig, a BB gun, pepper spray, a drilling hammer, a folding knife and other paraphernalia in her possession when she made the 900-mile drive from Houston to Orlando to accost Shipman, authorities said. The juiciest detail in the police report, the one that turned a piece of tabloid filler into a punchline, was that she had brought adult diapers (an astronaut necessity) with her so as to avoid having to stop on the way, though Nowak later denied having worn them.

Diapers are neither seen nor worn in “Lucy in the Sky,” an omission that drew disappointed chuckles and generated headlines at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Hawley, who wrote the script with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, has said in interviews that he avoided it because he wanted to “rehumanize” his off-screen subject. That’s a debatable notion — is there anything more humanizing, really, than the inescapable reality of our most basic biological functions? — but given the near-impossibility of discussing this movie without even making reference to the diaper incident, you can understand the director’s reluctance to compound Nowak’s humiliation.

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Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm in “Lucy in the Sky.”
Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm in the movie “Lucy in the Sky.”
(Hilary Gayle/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

You can also appreciate the sensitivity of his approach to Lucy, whom he treats less as a stand-in for Nowak than as a woman whose dreams, desires, frustrations and impulses defy conventional dramatization or diagnosis. Her family life has been wholly reinvented. Lucy has a sharp-tongued grandmother (an F-bomb-dropping Ellen Burstyn), who keeps a Chekhovian loaded gun in her purse, and a moody live-in niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) whose narrative function is harder to divine. Together, though, they do form a collective portrait of female solidarity in a movie that’s about, among other things, the insulting assumptions and diminished expectations that women face in matters of work and love.

One salutary way to approach “Lucy in the Sky” is to see it as a companion volume to the season’s other stargazing character study, “Ad Astra,” answering that picture’s masculine aloofness with a portrait of a female astronaut in emotional flux. The feminist thrust may explain the way Hawley and his co-writers have selectively retooled Nowak’s story, especially what awaits her at the end of her long, impulsive road trip. Unfortunately, it’s an anticlimactic conclusion at best, full of tacked-on thriller shenanigans that, once they’ve petered out, make you wonder exactly why this story drew the filmmakers’ attention to begin with.

The answer to that, happily, can be found in Portman’s every glimmer of nuance. She’s been fond of big accents and big histrionics of late, as suited the larger-than-life celebrities she was playing (“Vox Lux,” “Jackie”), but here her mild Texas drawl complements a performance that always feels focused and measured in its volatility, never faltering even when the filmmaking does. You don’t need so many lyrical butterfly shots when you have an actress who can show you, in a simple glance or gesture, a woman who’s more than outlived her cocoon.

‘Lucy in the Sky’
Rating: R, for language and some sexual content

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Playing: Opens Oct. 4 in general release

‘Lucy in the Sky’


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