Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
LUCY IN THE SKY
Rated R, 2 hours 4 minutes
Directed by: Noah Hawley
She’s witnessed the wonders of our planet from space. She’s floated weightlessly in the zero-gravity magnificence of the heavens above. She’s even seen a sunrise only a rare few are allowed at such great heights. However, an accomplished astronaut’s life is sent spiraling out of control all because of a dude.
That’s the real-life tale of former naval flight officer and NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak that inspired director Noah Hawley’s LUCY IN THE SKY – an arthouse iteration of Oxygen channel’s SNAPPED. The salacious scandal involving a love triangle, a package of adult diapers, and an attempted kidnapping has been fashioned by the hands of a few men into a highly-stylized, wannabe feminist tale about a woman’s metamorphosis. Yet in trying to understand what drove this woman to have a psychological breakdown, they turn her into an embarrassing parody.
Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) has just returned from ten blissful days in space. Her body is in top physical shape, not suffering the normal effects of space travel. Though this reads slightly abnormal to her superiors, she perseveres. Her mental acuity and cool temperament also seem to be in check, as demonstrated by the checklist rundowns which she mutters to herself as she jogs. Her marriage to doting husband Drew (Dan Stevens) is going strong with talk of expanding their family. And her guardianship of teen niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) is a happy, healthy one. Only there’s trouble brewing beneath the surface that even Lucy has yet to recognize and rectify.
After a life spent overachieving, putting everyone else’s needs above her own and facing challenges head-on, Lucy starts displaying erratic behavior. She acts noticeably distant with Drew. Worse, she impulsively starts up a steamy affair with astronaut colleague/ bad boy divorcee Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). Her precarious situation with her overly observant bosses is compounded when jealousy of another female colleague, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), causes her to almost lose her life during a practice exercise. Plus, in the midst of all this self-destructive drama, Lucy’s grandma Holbrook (Ellen Burstyn) dies, leaving her emotionally adrift in grief.
Listen, I’m not saying men can’t direct or create cinema that properly captures the tortured psyche of female protagonists. In recent years, filmmakers like Pablo Larraín (JACKIE), Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN, MOTHER!), and Alex Ross Perry (HER SMELL) have all portrayed fracturing female anxieties and nervous breakdowns with insightful candor and cleverness. Hawley, along with screenwriters Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown, handles Lucy’s headspace ham-handedly time and time again. Whether it be the manufactured and obtrusive aesthetics, the incredibly limited understanding of misogyny, or the terribly on-the-nose symbolism of peeling wallpaper, cocooned butterflies, and the Challenger explosion (ho boy), it’s clear these filmmakers value cliché above craftsmanship. While there’s something to be said for Lucy’s transformation into an unlikeable, un-rootable person, someone that even she’s battling against, the filmmakers absolutely fail to communicate that idea successfully.
Visually, Hawley utilizes a shifting aspect ratio (from different widescreen ratios, to the more constricted 4:3 ratio, etc.) to reflect his heroine’s mutating mindset. When those visual alterations occur, sound design also changes from an insular, centered mono to more of a stereoscopic sound, like whenever Lucy gains clarity. He frequently positions the camera looking down from above, shooting from the “God’s Eye” perspective, as if we’re judging Lucy. But all of Hawley’s thoughtful artifice – which never genuinely ascends from being artifice for artifice’s sake – is forgotten in the third act, rendering its sharpened points dull.
Most of these characters are drawn in broad strokes. They are caricatures made up of movie tropes rather than spotlit as dynamic people. Dedicated, dopey Drew might as well be sporting a doormat as his mustache. Nana Holbrook is a cookie-cutter version of tough-talking, hard-livin’ broad, though she does provide levity and revelry, along with the film’s best line (“All that astronaut dick is making you soft”). Mark is the archetypal rebel, who rides a slick motorcycle, drinks beer at work, and has an irrepressible sexual appetite. All that’s missing from him is a pack of cigarettes and a leather jacket. It’s Houston, so lightweight button down shirts will have to do. Lucy’s boss Frank Paxton (Colman Domingo) is the embodiment of evil male boss energy when he rejects Lucy’s second bid for space travel, giving her the charged critique that makes every woman’s’ blood boil: “You’re too emotional.” Instead of distilling the narrative’s sentiments about the sexism Lucy faces in a male-dominated field, that line becomes a leaden weight, dragging down the picture by pandering. It sets the story on the path to becoming an outlandish Lifetime “woman gone crazy” movie.
It would be one thing if Hawley and company intended this to be an I, TONYA style exoneration of a misunderstood tabloid queen – and it seems at one point they do. Yet they lack the ability bring those ideas together in a cohesive manner to sway public opinion. With the tone’s transmutation from serious to silly, LUCY IN THE SKY fails to rocket us into orbit.
LUCY IN THE SKY opens on October 4.