FILM REVIEW – LUCY IN THE SKY. Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Ellen Burstyn. Written by Elliott Di Guiseppi, Brian C. Brown and Noah Hawley. Directed by Noah Hawley. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 124 minutes.
“All that astronaut dick is making you soft,” says the 87-year-old, Academy Award-winning president of The Actor’s Studio Ellen Burstyn during one of the more dignified moments granted her by LUCY IN THE SKY, which is as puzzlingly terrible and pointless as any movie you’ll see this year.
Prestige television’s golden boy Noah Hawley has made a forehead-smacking mess out of the lurid real-life tale of Lisa Nowak, the former naval flight officer and Space Shuttle Discovery Commander whose attempted kidnapping of a co-worker’s new love interest made headlines back in the aughts because she wore adult diapers during a 900-mile drive to the scene of the crime. It’s one of those weird tabloid tidbits that lodge in a reader’s mind, in part because it’s such a sterling example of NASA ingenuity and mission discipline.
Attempting to inflate this tawdry true crime tale into some sort of metaphysical meditation, Hawley leaves out the diaper detail, which is a shame because the movie’s so full of shit it could’ve used one. Now named Lucy Cola and played by an up-for-anything Natalie Portman, our unhinged space oddity has been re-routed from the real-life astronaut’s Maryland upbringing to a generic “Hee-Haw” American South, with Burstyn as her potty-mouthed granny and Dan Stevens playing Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons” as her ineffectual cuckold husband. But once Lucy gets a glimpse of the cosmos she can’t go home again so easily, finding herself unable to re-adjust back to day-to-day life after seeing beyond the stars.
Hawley attempts to convey her dislocation by mucking with the aspect ratio, the screen’s width undulating sometimes according to Lucy’s moods and other times for no apparent reason at all. I suppose our expanding and contracting field of view is meant to represent how narrow she finds the world after being in the vastness of space, but then why switch to super-wide cinemascope for an establishing shot of a golf course? Like most of the creative decisions behind the film, this one doesn’t seem to have been thought through for more than five minutes.
Lucy can only find her equilibrium by throwing herself into a passionate affair with a co-worker played by Jon Hamm. The man who Tina Fey once described as looking like “a cartoon of a pilot” is almost too perfect for this movie’s louche, 1960s Playboy magazine idea of a hard-drinking, ladykilling space ranger. Hamm hilariously plays him as a cross between Don Draper and Buzz Lightyear, though the movie doesn’t seem to be in on the joke.
He and Portman indulge in lusty, inter-office encounters overloaded with phallic symbolism like launching rockets, their somber sex morosely laden with intonations of mortality. One of the more curious interludes finds a drunken, shirtless Hamm obsessively re-watching footage of the Challenger explosion like a character in Cronenberg’s “Crash,” while an earlier desktop cunnilingus scene is awkwardly intercut with a helmet breach that almost drowns Lucy in a training accident. (Both events appear to get her off.)
Probably presuming that she’d found her own “I, Tonya,” Portman goes all in on this nonsense with great gusto and a Holly Hunter honk. (She makes “spayce” into a two-syllable word.) I know I’m in the minority here but I love it when Portman lays on a big, broad accent like in “Jackie” or “Vox Lux.” She’s typically such a tight, over-controlled performer that wacky voices seem to liberate her entire physicality. It’s fun to watch her fling herself around, “y’all”-ing it up in sleeveless crop tops and denim skirts, even though her performance makes it impossible to buy for a second that Lucy would have a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
It’s also impossible not to wonder what the hell Hawley was trying to get at here, overloading every scene with show-offy camera tricks and heavy-handed intonations of meaningfulness that don’t actually seem to mean anything at all. I’ve enjoyed some of the Coen brothers cosplay on his TV adaptation of “Fargo,” while having reservations that Hawley entirely understands the film from which he’s working. “Lucy in the Sky” is a spectacularly incoherent text, with the general takeaways being that women are far too fragile to go to outer “spayce,” and that sex with Jon Hamm is so amazing it’s worth committing multiple felonies in order to try and keep having it. At least I believe the second part.•••
Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.