Saddled with a silly title, unconvincing performances, annoying aspect-ratio stunts, and a disjointed script that can’t decide if it wants to be soap-opera trashy or intellectually sublime, “Lucy in the Sky” is an all-systems-no disaster. That’s especially disappointing because this is the first feature film directed by until-now critical darling Noah Hawley, creator of the two intriguingly offbeat FX TV series “Fargo” and “Legion.”
Natalie Portman stars as Lucy Cola, a contemporary astronaut whose 10 days in space were so awe-inspiring that life back on Earth feels “so small.” In what looks like a Dorothy Hamill wig and sleeveless tops that show off her athlete-fit body, Lucy is a former Naval Academy valedictorian who is as goal-focused as a cyborg. Self-destructively competitive during training, she recites mission checklist items like a mental-case mantra when she’s under pressure. She can fix the plumbing under her kitchen sink by herself, though, so she’s clearly empowered.
Portman also employs a dubious Texas twang that sounds condescendingly corny, and walks with a defiant swagger. Attitude and accent-wise, she seems to be trying out for either an Annie Oakley rodeo revival, or maybe the Jessie role in “Toy Story on Ice.”
“Legion” star and former “Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens plays Lucy’s amiably bland husband Drew, a mustachioed and grace-saying square who has all the emotional resonance of a cartoon character. And that cartoon character’s name is “Flanders.” (Speaking of “The Simpsons,” the movie blatantly swipes a “where’d you get that brownie” gag from the episode that guest-starred George Harrison.)
The weak-wristed (literally; the guy can’t open jars) Drew is stuck with delivering dialogue like, “Babe, you went to space! I’m so proud of you.” When a drunk and distracted Lucy comes in the front door at one point and announces, “I’m home,” Drew meaningfully gets to reply, “No, I don’t think you are.”
Drew has a public-relations position at NASA, giving him plot-convenient access to personnel files that will come in handy later. That’s because while he’s at work or dutifully stripping wallpaper at home, Lucy is getting adulterously astro-naughty with fellow 200-miles-high club member Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm).
Like Lucy, Mark is played as a longneck-drinkin’ half-a-redneck who is as at home in a pick-up as he is in a space shuttle. Maybe the implication is supposed to be that astronauts are basically no more than long-haul truckers with a different means of transportation, but both he and Lucy seem too blue-collar earthy to be believed.
Hamm’s chiseled, Superman-level good looks make him easy to accept as a smart and sophisticated ladies’ man. The onetime dapper Don Draper has a hard time impersonating a not-so-good ol’ boy who likes bowling and is dumb enough to leave his e-mail password in his top desk drawer, however.
Casting against type that way may have worked if this had been an absurd “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”-style farce. (Hamm played Kimmy’s amusingly nutso kidnapper in that series.) Unfortunately, the first three-quarters of “Lucy in the Sky” play more like a dimly lit Terrence Malick dirge than a dark comedy. Most of the movie is nearly as deadly dull as “First Man,” to use another NASA nod-off for comparison, except nothing’s that tedious.
Zazie Beetz (Domino in “Deadpool 2”) plays astronaut-in-training Erin Eccles, Lucy’s spunky rival for both Mark’s affections and a place on the next shuttle mission. Lucy’s teenage niece Blue Iris, staying with Lucy and Drew because her father is a flake, is played with detached adolescent angst by Pearl Amanda Dixon (young Syd Barrett on “Legion”). Ellen Burstyn portrays Lucy’s brassy “Nana,” the kind of tough old bird who keeps a handgun in her purse and still smokes even though she’s on oxygen.
Text at the beginning of the movie notes it was “inspired by real events,” but the screenplay (by Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Hawley) changes every name and numerous details about the 2007 news story that was the basis for the film’s final-act antics. Then again, Hawley begins each episode of his completely fictional “Fargo” TV series with the lie that “This is a True Story,” so credibility obviously isn’t one of the director’s priorities.
When the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” song awkwardly appears behind a gimmicky transitional scene, it’s a slow-sung goth rendition performed with funereal flatness by Lisa Hannigan. In other words, it sounds like the kind of creepy kiddie songs heard in nearly every horror-movie trailer these days.
Lots of shots in the movie are from above, looking straight down on houses and roads as an unsubtle visual reminder that Lucy’s head is constantly in the clouds. Hawley also keeps changing aspect ratios throughout the film—widening, narrowing, shortening, and lengthening the frame—possibly to break up the monotony until things finally get hopping. That’s when Lucy as the woman scorned decides to take some cross-country road-trip vengeance on the man who done her wrong. Why her niece would tag along, even though she can see that Lucy is plainly loopy by then, is a mystery.
At the beginning of the movie, there’s a tonal head fake implying that Lucy’s story might be a spooky psychological science-fiction fantasy instead of a cliché love quadrangle. An anecdote about Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins reveals that he was so consumed by “I am now truly alone” darkness that he wept as he circled the moon by himself. That sounds like a set-up for Lucy to be enlightened with cosmic consciousness or transformed by deranged despair that leads to something supernatural. Instead, her single-minded determination to get off Earth again seems borne more of selfish ambition than spiritual compulsion.
Lucy eventually takes part in one of those tedious “seeing and talking to the recently deceased” scenes that keep popping up in popular entertainment, and later gets to impart some sisterly #TimesUp advice about men: “We have to be better, or they win!” There’s also a heavy-handed chrysalis/butterfly metaphor throughout the film.
“Lucy in the Sky” is the second flick in two weeks about an emotionally broken astronaut who goes rogue with no regard for the consequences. Both films have their flaws, but Brad Pitt’s much better “Ad Astra” easily wins this space race.