Director: Noah Hawley
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens
What do you do when your head and your heart are in vastly different orbits, out of sync and liable to collide during some future rotation, causing chaos and sending debris flying everywhere? Such a state of erratic discombobulation is rife throughout Noah Hawley’s feature directorial debut Lucy In The Sky; a critical and commercial failure that has still managed to pocket Hawley the keys to the Star Trek franchise. Talk about falling upwards.
But this sensation of fundamental disarray is matched in my own reaction to the film. My head cries “No” but my heart pleads “Yes”. Hawley’s film is a topsy-turvey jumble; a showy, flighty, foolhardy mess of a movie… but that’s also exactly why it kept me on board, no matter how many questionable choices it threw at me.
There were two chief draws here. Hawley (whose Fargo TV series I love) and Natalie Portman, who I will watch in anything. Few other actors working at her level today take on such eclectic choices. This past decade she’s gone insane for Darren Aronofsky, mind-melded with an alien life form for Alex Garland, transformed into Jackie Kennedy for Pablo Larraín and out-diva’d Madonna for Brady Corbet. If you’re not counting Portman among the most interesting players out there, I don’t know what more could convince you.
In this take on true events, Portman plays astronaut Lucy Cola who, on returning to Earth, discovers re-entry can be a rocky process. Her world can’t help but seem smaller. Never one to admit when she’s struggling – or indeed failing – Lucy makes a string of increasingly bad decisions. Chief among them is starting up an affair with dunderheaded fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm, playing Don Draper circa season 4, specifically). Hawley and Portman chart the psychological downward spiral when a person is suddenly confronted with the news that the most exciting part of their life is definitely over.
The ghost of Lucy’s mother (remember what I said about bad decisions?) snarks that “astronaut dick” is making her soft. It clangs like several other lines of (I’m sorry) cocksure dialogue, but it also vocalises what’s largely being depicted; a woman who goes crazy for a man. Granted, Lucy is going through a lot, but as she goes full Fatal Attraction on Mark – dragging her niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) along for the ride – Lucy In The Sky starts to look frightfully like a movie about how crazy dem ladyfolk are.
Adding to this itchy feeling of discontent is Hawley’s incessant swapping up of aspect ratios. Now, on the small screen this works pretty well for him. Fargo has proven an inventive and artfully witty show, not just in its writing but in its technical execution. In the cinema, however, this restlessness with form is exceedingly distracting. At worst, it feels immature, like a first year film grad trying forcefully to imprint his work with a sense of auteurism. It rarely serves the picture well, and it is happening continuously. Experiments with depth of field yield similar results.
Several sequences find Hawley crying out for attention. The title of the movie is a groan-worthy play on the classic Beatles song, but far worse is the decision to incorporate a cover of the song into a sequence in which Portman’s Lucy is fixed centre-frame with the world swooping by around her. Likewise, in-scene light changes denoting a swerve from reality to fantasy only serve to bust us out of the moment completely. Few movies lately have felt quite as self-aware as Hawley’s does. Tarantino looks positively restrained by comparison.
And yet, and yet… It’s also weirdly enthralling. First off, there’s the gall to present a film like this. We bemoan the lack of spark or inventiveness or playfulness in our cinemas. Marvel movies all look the same, yada yada yada. Here’s a flick that’s taken reason and artful good taste, balled them up and thrown them at the wastepaper bin. And missed. Lucy In The Sky is the square peg butting up against a round hole. It’s the sore thumb that sticks out. It’s the crooked tooth in a beaming smile. And I kind of love it for that.
That, and Portman. She has thrown herself into this person with every bit as much effort as anything else she’s put her name to. As with her Jackie Kennedy there’s a wig and a thick accent to acclimatise to, but her gusto and confidence match Hawley’s. The two of them are all-in for this one, and that’s very nearly enough to make it work.
This is a movie about feeling confused and angry and disappointed and restless. It’s a little bit anxious and upset at the world. It’s irrational. And intentionally or not, those feelings have been communicated in the very fibre of its execution. My head says, “No” but my heart says “Yes”.
Going with my heart on this one.