Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Movie Review: Lucy in the Sky

Lucy in the Sky ** / *****   
Directed by: Noah Hawley.
Written by: Noah Hawley and Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Lucy Cola), Jon Hamm (Mark Goodwin), Zazie Beetz (Erin Eccles), Dan Stevens (Drew Cola), Pearl Amanda Dickson (Blue Iris), Ellen Burstyn (Nana Holbrook), Colman Domingo (Frank Paxton), Jeremiah Birkett (Hank Lynch), Jeffrey Donovan (Jim Hunt), Tig Notaro (Kate Mounier), Stella Edwards (Chelsea), Arlo Mertz (Emily), Tobias Schönleitner (Miles Henckle), Diana DeLaCruz (Dr. Addison), Nick Offerman (Will Plimpton), Joe Williamson (Mayer Hines), Arnell Powell (Earl Pearly).
There are some bad films that are bad because the filmmakers don’t have the talent or the budget to make them work. And then there are bad films made by talented people, with a lot of resources, who just fundamentally misjudge the material, and somehow the whole things gets away from them. Lucy in the Sky is a film like that. It is loosely based on a true story – the strange story of astronaut Lisa Nowak – who, after returning from space, ended up driving across country – wearing astronaut diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop – in a plan to kidnap a romantic rival. That story is insane – and should make for a compelling movie. The problem is that the very talented co-writer/director Noah Hawley (who did Fargo and Legion for TV) decided to take the material super seriously. He didn’t want to make a cheap, fun film about this insane story – and in taking it so seriously, he basically sucks all the air out of the film. He tries so many stylistic things in the movie that it comes off as a first time director (which, in terms of films, Hawley is) trying to show off, instead of making a movie that services the material. He ends up stranding his incredibly talented cast with nothing much to do.
Natalie Portman has the lead role here – Lucy Cola, who when we first meet her is in space, at the international space station, looking down on the world from a vantage point that most of us will never see. That sort of thing can change a person – and it does for Lucy. When she arrives back to earth, all of a sudden her dull, but nice, husband Drew (Dan Stevens) seems so much duller than before. In fact, everything in her life seems so much duller. As she says, what are supposed to do when you get back from space, go to Applebee’s? She gravitates towards others who have been to space – in particular Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a womanizer, who is having an affair with another astronaut, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz) at the same time he is doing the same with Lucy.
Hawley plays with the aspect ratios throughout Lucy in the Sky – it is wide and expansive in space, or when she returns and is training to go back to space, and tight and constrictive when she goes about her day to day life. Interestingly, Hawley keeps the tight constrictive ratio even when Lucy is having sex with Mark – meaning that the sex she is having outside of her marriage isn’t any less dull to her – but perhaps she just needs that connection to someone who understands what she has gone through.
You can see how this sort of material could work – but I’m not sure Hawley ever really cracks it. Perhaps, coming from a TV background, had he gotten 8-10 hours to spend with Lucy, he would have done it. What we get instead is the truth that going to space changes you – but no real understanding of the how or why. By the time we get to the last act of the movie – and Lucy really starts spiraling out-of-control, the movie kind of does as well. Portman can spiral – she won an Oscar for Black Swan, which was one long spiral out-of-control – but here, buried under a bad wig, and a fake sounding Southern accent, it never really feels like she’s doing anything except playing dress up. What really seems to set her off is when she is told she won’t be on the next mission – and that she is too “emotional” right now for that – the kind of casual, everyday misogyny women deal with all the time, or would be if she didn’t go so far off the deep end right after that she more than proves their point.
It doesn’t help much that the film is full of unnecessary character – Lucy’s niece in particular serves no purpose for how much time she gets, and even wastes Ellen Burstyn as Portman’s profane grandma (her crack about astronaut dick is a good one – and belongs in the more fun version of Nowack’s story). Even a talented actor like Stevens doesn’t seem to know what to do with Drew other than the make him as full as possible (as an accountant, I am thankful they made him a PR guy, because normally someone this dull in a movie would have my job). Hamm is well-cast – he could play this role to perfection – if there was more to dig into. And, sadly, this is yet another film that completely wastes the talents of Zazie Beetz.
Hawley has talented. If I made a decade list of my favorite TV shows in the last 10 years, Fargo would be on it – and high on it, and I came into that thinking it was a mistake to try and make a TV shows out of the Coen’s masterpiece. Here, though, he gives into his worst instincts – the type of stuff that eventually made me stop watching Legion. At a certain point, you have to stop showing off, and tell a story worth telling, with characters you want to keep watching. He doesn’t crack the code with Lucy in the Sky – a major disappointment for 2019.

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