By Kim Hughes
A conceptual mess if a somewhat engaging one, Lucy in the Sky — which tellingly screened to zero fanfare at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival — follows Natalie Portman’s Lucy, an absurdly plucky astronaut with a Nadia Comăneci (circa 1980) haircut who faces an existential crisis the moment she returns home from a mind-expanding space journey, where humdrum things like dinner plans didn’t suck up half the day.
Suddenly, life seems very small and Lucy quickly lands on the notion that returning to space is the only solution to her ever-increasing woes. She vows to do whatever it takes to secure a spot on an upcoming mission.
An affair with a dashing NASA co-worker (Jon Hamm) at first seems to give Lucy footing — he understands what she is going through! And man, the sex is h-o-t… —but things soon unravel as Lucy’s hell-bent desire to return to the outer limits warps her suddenly fragile grip on reality. That she is married to a sweet and ostensibly understanding man who also happens to work at NASA (Dan Stevens convincingly conjuring a puppy dog in a neck tie) provides scant comfort.
Portman is enormously watchable as the sassy Southern over-achiever who slowly comes unglued but her spiral strains credulity. It just doesn’t seem possible that someone so smart and self-possessed could slip through the cracks so quickly and completely. We know Lucy is a brainy firebrand because she can spar with wise-cracking, hard-living, endlessly cheerleading Nana (Ellen Burstyn) and fix stuff around her house. So how can she not avail herself of all the help on offer by NASA professionals who’ve, you know, seen this sort of thing before?
A secondary and eventually overlapping narrative involving Lucy’s niece and an ill-fated road trip also strains belief, and ends up more distracting than satisfying. Moreover, the filmmakers posit some doubtless unintentional but nevertheless uncomfortable sexist possibilities for Lucy’s meteoric slide; it’s very hard to imagine a male character following a similar emotional trajectory. Lucy in the Sky, produced by Reese Witherspoon and ace small-screen director Noah Hawley (Fargo) who also co-wrote the script, just never gets off the ground.
Lucy in the Sky. Directed by Noah Hawley. Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo, Pearl Amanda Dickson and Ellen Burstyn. Opens in select theatres October 11.