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'Lucy in the Sky' review: Natalie Portman's astronaut drama is sensitive, but not fully satisfying

Natalie Portman stars in "Lucy in the Sky."

Natalie Portman stars in "Lucy in the Sky." Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

PLOT After a space mission, a high-achieving astronaut begins to unravel.

CAST Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz

RATED R (sexuality and language)

LENGTH 2:04

BOTTOM LINE A sensitive, artful and rather odd retelling of a well-known news story.

"Lucy in the Sky" begins with a powerful image: An astronaut, played by Natalie Portman, floating above an Earth aglow with city lights. It's a familiar face-of-God moment — think Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" or David Bowie's "Space Oddity" — but we feel its impact thanks to Portman's transported gaze and the beauty of the image, from debut director Noah Hawley (TV's "Fargo" and "Legion").


From that haunting beginning, you'd never know "Lucy in the Sky" was inspired by Lisa Nowak, the real-life astronaut who in 2007 drove from Texas to Florida to attack her lover's new girlfriend, all the while reportedly wearing adult diapers (so she wouldn't have to make rest stops). 

How did that bizarre tabloid headline become this thoughtful drama? One answer is that "Lucy in the Sky" isn't Nowak's story at all, despite its claim to be "inspired by real events," but a fictional story with certain parallels. Hawley, who also co-wrote the film, intentionally omitted the diapers out of respect for Nowak, who has denied the claim. That's a small detail, but emblematic of what makes "Lucy in the Sky" a sensitive but not fully satisfying film.

"Lucy in the Sky" features a fine-tuned performance from Portman as Lucy Cola, whose recent space mission leaves her with something like existential PTSD. Once you've confronted the cosmos, she says, "then you splash down and what -- go to Applebee's?" Looking for a new high, she begins cheating on her too-perfect husband (an excellent Dan Stevens as the blindly upbeat Drew) with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). What Lucy doesn’t know is that Mark also has a thing for her colleague Erin (an underused Zazie Beetz).

Hawley, in a bold move, uses the film's frame to reflect Lucy's unstable reality: It shrinks, expands, shifts and even wobbles dangerously. Polly Morgan's excellent cinematography adds a dreamy, semi-hallucinatory feel. Once Lucy goes off the rails and the story gets weird, however, the movie becomes less sure of its intentions, and a slight comedic tone creeps in.

Hawley has made a reasoned and compassionate choice with his approach, but it's the wrong one. Nowak's story is crying out for the same treatment Tonya Harding's tale received in "I, Tonya" — something energetic enough to reflect its weirdness and honest enough to see the bitter humor in it all. Instead, "Lucy in the Sky" ends up feeling like one strange bird, which is also a fair description of its heroine. 

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