A character study with a dollop of magical realism, Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky, which premiered on Wednesday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is ultimately stymied by its own ambitiousness. Unsure of whether to be a portrait of a marriage, a meditation on the foibles of space travel, or a feminist exploration of gender inequities in the workplace, Lucy is most appealing when highlighting Natalie Portman’s bravura turn in the title role.
Hawley’s film is loosely inspired by the saga of Lisa Nowak (although an opening title merely tells us that it is based on a true story), the astronaut who faced kidnapping charges in 2007 after driving from Houston to Florida to confront a romantic rival. Lucy fleshes out the bare bones of Nowak’s escapades (which were invariably labeled “bizarre” by the press at the time; reports, which she denied, that she wore an adult diaper to avoid pit stops made her a much-lampooned figure) by making her fictional surrogate, Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), a supremely capable woman plagued by anguish after she returns from a successful mission in space.
Despite her supportive but dull husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a loving niece, and an affectionately crotchety grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), Lucy’s life feels empty after returning to earth. She wistfully remarks that “she never felt more alive” than when she was in space. While one assumes that the celestial vibrancy she experienced was more mystical than erotic, the void that envelops her is temporarily filled by an affair with Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fellow astronaut known as a ladies’ man.
After her helmet becomes waterlogged during training at the Johnson Space Center and she fails to win a place on the upcoming Orion mission, Lucy’s mind begins to go awry. Her mental disintegration accelerates when Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), an astronaut in training she befriends, becomes her rival for Mark’s affections.
Unfortunately, any valid insights into Lucy’s psyche are deflected by Hawley’s weakness for visual and narrative trickery. Frequently banal dialogue is papered over by gimmicky shifts in aspect ratios, a pedestrian use of slow motion, the occasional montage sequence, and cacophonous internal monologues on the soundtrack. One gets the feeling that Hawley, known for creating Legion as well as bringing the Coen Bros.’ Fargo to the small screen, felt he had to go all out devising something distinctively cinematic. Yet much of the movie’s CGI wizardry is a waste—the intimacy of television might have provided a more appropriate format for what is essentially a chamber drama.
Even though it’s often not certain if Portman is portraying a flawed heroine or just a lunatic, she is game enough to deploy a creditable Southern accent and attempt to convey her character’s enormous mood swings. Hamm is alternately sleazy and charming as the local Lothario while Stevens’s one-note performance as the square husband is nevertheless amusing—his boring countenance sums up the type of suffocating relationship that Lucy is trying to escape.
If Lucy’s story is meant to be some sort of cautionary tale, it’s not quite clear what lesson Hawley is attempting to outline. Given that Lucy is frustrated by her inability to reach her goals and is frequently patronized by male colleagues at NASA, the implication might be that this space cadet’s delusions are actually strivings for female autonomy. For too much of the movie’s running time, alas, Hawley focuses more on her pathology than her yearnings for independence. Oddly enough, another film at this year’s TIFF, Alice Winocour’s Proxima, is a far more moving and cogent treatment of a female astronaut’s plight. The traumas, both major and minor, that the space traveller played by Eva Green endures in Proxima are engendered by tangible institutional sexism, not some amorphous desire to return to the vast expanses of space.