Says here an astronaut
Put on a pair of diapers
And drove eighteen hours
To kill her boyfriend
– “Cologne” by Ben Folds
It says a lot when a tabloid news headline enters itself so far into the public consciousness that it becomes a lyric in a pop song. But Noah Hawley’s new film Lucy in the Sky, very loosely based on the same real-life soap opera, isn’t interested in those tawdry details, so much as it is the psychology of what pushes someone over the edge to the point where they’re willing to commit such an act.
At age 52, Hawley is too old to be a wunderkind, but his recent emergence as one of television’s most groundbreaking and inventive auteur showrunners has made him a go-to creative talent for outside-the-box narratives, with his Fargo and Legion series (both originating on the now Disney-owned FX network) ranking among some of the freshest small-screen storytelling in recent memory. And as co-writer and director of his first feature film Lucy in the Sky— under its much better working title Pale Blue Dot— it’s evident he cares more about astronaut Lucy Cola’s (Natalie Portman) state of mind at that moment than whether she was wearing absorbent undergarments at the time.
Portman gives a tour-de-force performance as Cola, who finds it extremely difficult to adjust back to her “normal” suburban life after experiencing the exhilarating wonder of outer space. She quickly grows bored of her milquetoast, nice-guy husband Drew (Legion lead Noah Hawley, doing his best Ned Flanders) and enters into a hasty affair with fellow spacegoer Mark Goodwin (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who also provided some ruminative voice-overs in Legion’s second season). Feeling lost and adrift, Lucy begins to sink into emotional numbness, resulting in her failing a response test to a dangerous situation during a training program.
You see, all Lucy wants is to return to the titular sky. She’s addicted to the endorphin rush space travel delivered, and nothing back on Earth quite stacks up. She’s talking to a NASA therapist (Fargo’s Nick Offerman) but it isn’t enough. And after her detachment brings about an unexpected and unwelcome consequence from her superiors, Cola goes off the deep end. From that point on the movie transforms into a suspense thriller, as we track her descent into what some may view as a justified mania. It’s never less than interesting to watch, but I can see the disparity in tones between acts feeling a little disjointed, and the heavy-handed metaphors– especially a running throughline concerning a jar of living moth cocoons– often come across as too on-the-nose to be taken seriously.
Still, carrying over directly from his TV shows, Hawley has a kinetic visual flair that can’t be denied. His employment of an ever-morphing variable aspect ratio provides the viewer with obvious clues to Portman’s character’s mindset in each scene, and recurring top-down bird’s-eye establishing shots remind us where Lucy’s point of view is really coming from. The filmmaker also makes terrific use of musical score (composed by Jeff Russo of both Legion and Fargo) and needle-drop song selection, except for one eye-rolling moment utilizing a Beatles cover that would probably have worked better if Fox Searchlight hadn’t changed the film’s title.
Lucy in the Sky isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a strong first big-screen effort from an established novelist and television mastermind, and I’m surprised to see it getting a negative reception from critics. It’s got a great cast and tells a compelling yarn, even without the inclusion of the diapers– an arbitrary sticking point I’ve seen in some reviews that I don’t really understand. This is a well-shot head-in-the-stars drama worth checking out. And as always, I’m looking forward to seeing anything Noah Hawley cooks up next.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5 bad moustaches
Mike serves as Laughing Place’s lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly “Who’s the Bossk?” Star Wars podcast. He’s been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.