“Lucy in the Sky” is a Lifetime Original Movie-style melodrama puffed up into a would-be “Gravity,” a “serious” movie with the weight of an Oscar contender.
It’s been over-thought, over-scripted and over-directed into something spacey, ethereal and trippy by the guy who gave us TV’s “Legion.”
He gets so caught up in impressing us he loses track that he’s losing us with his tedious tale of NASA, the mental pitfalls of spaceflight, sex and competition.
You get why director and co-writer Noah Hawley did it. The true story that “Lucy in the Sky” jumps off from is lowdown, common — almost sordid. And tragically funny.
This is a highly-fictionalized version of the love triangle with the astronaut who flipped out and went on a cross-country dash to commit a kidnapping — wearing adult diapers to save time. The overreach here is trying to explain how “touching the void” plays on the mind of those recruited for job. The real story is a lot harder to see in a woman-experiences-the-limitless-cosmos-first-hand-and-snaps terms.
Hawley wanted to make a movie with Oscar winners, with Natalie Portman — who won every honor under the sun as a warped ballerina in “Black Swan” — competing with rising star Zazie Beetz (“Joker”) for the attentions of “a divorced action figure who likes to go fast” astronaut (Jon Hamm), and also competing for spots in the spaceflight rotation because Lucy (Portman) has spacewalked and “changed.”
He wanted the overwhelmed astronaut’s name to be “Lucy,” so it could be a play on the Beatles tune, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
He REALLY wanted to use drones for all sorts of overhead shots, mimicking the perspective of things seen from “above,” in the heavens. He wanted soft focus scenes capturing Lucy’s increasingly fragile mental state.
And he wanted to take his sweet time getting around to that epic cross-country quest, a Houston to San Diego run, rather than the real-life dash to Orlando — which is inherently funny.
Lucy Cola (Portman) is a brassy, on-task Texan, “a winner” who experiences rapture when she spacewalks on a mission to the International Space Station. “Best two weeks of mah lahff,” she drawls.
She doesn’t want platitudes from her boss, barely hears “I missed you” from her not-particularly-butch husband (Dan Stevens of “Legion,” more in wussy “Downton Abbey” guise here). She’s not concerned about the NASA shrink’s (Nick Offerman) concerns.
“I never felt so alive.”
All she wants, and as soon as possible, is to go back. The Shuttle is winding down, Orion is still down the road. She’s frantically training and lobbying, in a manic hurry for something that won’t happen overnight.
The one guy who gets it is Astronaut Mark (Hamm), who gives her his “You’ve seen everything, the whole universe…seen the face of God” bit, welcoming her into “the circle of the rolling ball,” the exclusive club of humans who have traveled in space.
He’s hitting on her. And in her space-drunk state, she lets him.
Her hard-drinking, hard-cursing Nana (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn) made her tough and drove her to compete. So when her spot in the flight line is threatened and her affair means more to her than the swinging “action figure,” the woman who lives for checklists, planning, rattling through spacesuit prep and mission prep lists as she jogs, tumbles into another plan, another mission.
Portman makes a more convincing ballerina than astronaut. Space suits make even the bulkiest of us look like sticks stuffed into a Michelin Man suit. But she’s such an interesting actress she makes you forget the petite sprite lined up with other NASA Type As.
The pairing with Hamm is similarly out of proportion. But Portman brings an intimidating intensity to Lucy that makes him shrink in her presence in the later sccenes.
“I’m Good. A-OK. All systems are GO!”
Never has “The Right Stuff” seemed so wrong.
Hawley overwhelms the movie as the story takes on clutter it doesn’t need, and that includes extraneous characters. And I could have done with a lot fewer overhead views. Lucy’s fascination with butterflies coming out of their crysalis is a metaphor that doesn’t neatly fit here.
But the funereal pacing suggests they were sure they had a movie of weight and awards season importance on their hands. On the page, the whole package probably looked that way.
Save for the TV show runner ham-handedly over-directing it all.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Tig Notaro and Elle Burstyn.
Credits: Directed by Noah Hawley, script by Elliott DiGuiseppi, Brian C. Brown and Noah Hawley. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 2:04