Lucy in the Sky

Year: 2019
Production Co: 26 Keys Productions
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Noah Hawley
Producer: Noah Hawley/Bruna Papandrea/Reese Witherspoon
Writer: Brian C Brown/Elliott DiGuiseppi/Noah Hawley
Cast: Natalie Portman, John Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Pearl Amanda Dickson, Ellen Burstyn, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman

At first glance it seems like a really weird true story to adapt for a movie that's not a straight drama, almost a midday TV movie. The story of astronaut Lisa Nowak lends itself to a fairly cheesy mental health drama after she had an affair with a colleague, was dumped by him and then drove a third of the way across the US in the middle of the night to confront and physically attack he and his girlfriend.

But you realise what perfect sense it makes when you watch it, and in the hands of Noah (Fargo) Hawley, who co-wrote the screenplay, and star Natalie Portman's performance, you understand it's a tragedy about a woman who literally doesn't feel at home on Earth and its drudgery after glimpsing the infinite during a NASA mission.

Because with no small amount of irony, the story itself ends up a bit of a midday movie potboiler. After some quite transcendent early moments where Lucy (Portman) tries to reconnect with her home and family life and fails after the humbling sense of eternity she's witnessed, it's really only the story of a woman falling apart from a sense of loss and making increasingly poor decisions because she's desperate to do something crazy and escape the strictures of decent human society.

It starts with cheating on her loving dolt husband Drew (Dan Stevens) with dashing NASA colleague Mark (Jon Hamm) and ends with her wearing a blonde wig and dark glasses while following his girlfriend Erin (Zazie Beetz), a former protege of hers in the space program, with pepper spray in her pocket.

It's the story of what Lisa Nowak did, and that aspect of it is fairly everyday and mundane despite the personal drama it imposes on several people. But as an interpretation of how she felt while she did it it's a lot more successful, firstly because Portman plays the role convincingly, and secondly because the script by Hawley and his co-writers might be cleverer than most of the critics have given it credit for.

Lucy hates being back on Earth, she's seen the vast scale of the rest of the universe and everything happening below her takes on as much importance as insects scurrying around a mound of dirt. She wants nothing more than to get back to space and touch that endless void again, but in her desperation to do so, she ends up just one of the crazy ants scurrying around in the dirt worrying about her tiny little corner of it, her mind fracturing because the chance at getting what she wants is being increasingly taken away from her.

That's the melodramatic, jilted lover potboiler storyline that takes up most of the movie, so even though – as I said – the interpretation of what Nowak felt seems successful in Portman's hands, the most interesting things about her character evaporate early on and we're left with kind of another Fatal Attraction facsimile where the villain is just a crazy bitch we can't relate to any more.

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