It’s a tale as old as time: Married astronaut begins torrid affair with recently divorced co-worker; co-worker breaks off relationship, gets new girlfriend; married astronaut puts on adult diaper to drive 900 miles to Florida (because of course Florida) to confront ex-lover’s new girlfriend, armed with pepper spray. Pour out one glass of recycled urine for the space film we really needed in the year 2019, because in Lucy in the Sky, first-time feature director Noah Hawley (previously known for his work on TV’s Fargo and Legion) takes these very batshit real-life events and distills them into an atonal mess of a film that never manages to ignite.
That’s no knock against Natalie Portman, who convincingly dons a hipster bowl cut and a fairly decent Lone Star drawl (to this native Texan, anyway) to play Lucy Cola, a perpetual high achiever who can’t handle transitioning from the sublime high of her successful space mission to the mundanity of life down here on planet earth. (Portman is good here — really good — but given the role and the subject matter, it’s hard not to think of last year’s far superior Annihilation.) In the film’s more existentially minded first half, she physically returns to the Houston home she shares with her straight-laced husband, Drew (Dan Stevens), and their niece, Blue Iris (newcomer Pearl Amanda Dickson), but mentally, she’s all alone and stranded far out of orbit. She’s especially unnerved by Drew bringing up the idea of their having a baby in the not-so-distant future.
In the days and weeks following her mission, she takes refuge in the company of her fellow astronauts and their weekly bowling nights, and she grows especially close to Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), the group’s handsome and hard-drinking ringleader. Soon their camaraderie turns into flirtation and then into a full-blown affair she doesn’t really bother to hide; she’s addicted to the adrenaline rush and totally enamored with Mark, not realizing that for him, this is just another meaningless fling. Meanwhile, Lucy’s deteriorating mental state begins to seep into her work life as well — she takes some rather reckless risks during a training session that have some serious professional consequences.
Hawley and British cinematographer Polly Morgan (The Intervention, Holy Hell) help to illustrate Lucy’s unraveling through shifting aspect ratios and revolving camera angles, and it all feels a bit too much, especially when the script (co-written by Hawley along with newcomers Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi) is already piling on so much overwrought and overly earnest dialogue. I definitely could have done without all the super-expository rumination on whether or not Lucy’s mental state is due to the pressures of being a woman in a field dominated by men, as if there weren’t already some pretty serious mental issues going on in the head of anyone who would attempt to kidnap an ex’s new partner
Things only get worse when Lucy’s delightfully foul-mouthed grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) dies. It’s here that the film takes an abrupt and unconvincing shift into another gear we’ll call Her Smell Lite. Reeling from her grandmother’s death — and from discovering that Mark has been “cheating on her” with a younger astronaut named Erin (Zazie Beetz) — Lucy fully snaps. This act is a lot more fun than anything that precedes it, but it also feels like it’s from an entirely different film — if you’re going to make a film about Lisa Nowak, the woman known in our collective imagination as “NASA diaper lady,” you could probably take a lesson from, say, I, Tonya, and start camping things up a bit earlier in your two-hour run time.