Directed by Noah Hawley
Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz
Released October 11th, 2019
Have you ever stood in the middle of an apiary? The sensation of being enveloped in the buzz of bees can be transcendent, your senses inundated with nature’s infinite zen. It must feel similar to being in space.
To call Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) driven would be an understatement, but I don’t suppose you become an astronaut by doing things halfway. Inspired by the gun-toting grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn), Lucy pushes herself higher, further, faster than the people in her life consider safe. She’s courageous and reckless. Her husband Drew (the underrated Dan Stevens) works for NASA Public Relations, a kind moustache in khaki pants. Overall their marriage is solid, if boring. The banality of everyday life is amplified once Lucy returns from a mission in space. She becomes obsessed with returning to space as soon as possible, as nothing on Earth feels the same for her anymore. Lucy begins an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm, perfectly cast), which goes haywire once he begins to have eyes for new recruit Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz).
There are similarities between Lucy in the Sky and another film from this year featuring Zazie Beetz, Todd Phillips’ Joker. Both films center around a lead character with mental issues who becomes increasingly unable to react in a constructive fashion to the perceived madness of the world around them. The character of Lucy Cola is based on Lisa Nowak, who made headlines in 2007 when she was arrested in Orlando and charged with attempted kidnapping. Among her belongings authorities found a folding knife, a BB pistol, and adult diapers, obviously acquired so Ms. Nowak wouldn’t have to stop on her long journey from Texas to Florida (though Nowak denies ever using them).
You won’t find adult diapers making an appearance in Lucy in the Sky, as the film isn’t concerned with recounting the actual events. The screenplay by Brian C. Brown, Elliot DiGuiseppi, and director Noah Hawley uses the story of Lisa Nowak as a jumping-off point to explore themes of honesty, isolation, fidelity, and alienation. It’s because of this that the film really worked for me. I felt connected to everything Lucy Cola was going through, even as she felt increasingly disconnected. Lucy’s descent into “space madness” isn’t as showy as you may expect, but it is believable. Ai-Ling Lee’s Sound Design is remarkable, suffocating dialogue when Lucy is having trouble processing troubling events, and Hawley utilizes a constantly changing aspect ratio to reflect Lucy’s changing perception of the world around her.
Yes, the title song is featured in the film, sung by Lisa Hannigan. Interestingly, it’s used during a sequence set not in space, but on Earth, and it is cut off abruptly, as if the filmmakers decided “That’s enough of that.” In addition to Stevens, Hamm and Beetz, the supporting cast includes welcome faces such as Jeffrey Donovan, Tig Notaro, and Nick Offerman. But it’s Natalie Portman’s show and once again she elevates her surroundings with incredible, deeply felt work. Sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut, Holly Hunter accent, and a drab, working class wardrobe, Portman’s Lucy Cola is laser focused on her next mission at the expense of everything else, even if that mission involves doing questionable things.
There are moments that don’t quite work, including a dialogue refrain involving the query of why the chicken crossed the road, but overall Lucy in the Sky is an involving, challenging, low-key masterwork about detachment and obsession. By the time a blonde-wigged Portman is in the throes of desperate criminal actions, I thought to myself: I’ve felt this insignificance, this hopelessness. The feeling that nothing matters – until it does – living on this pale blue dot.