The words “inspired by real events” are some of the first you see on screen in ” Lucy in the Sky .” But that loose tie to reality becomes more of a noose than a help for the story that director Noah Hawley is trying to tell.
Hawley and screenwriters Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown cherry pick facts from former astronaut Lisa Nowak’s stranger-than-fiction story to reach some larger point about the metaphysical and psychological effects of space travel. But the significant and seemingly random changes, embellishments and omissions make you wonder why they even needed the tether of Nowak in the first place. And no, I’m not talking about diapers or the lack thereof.
Nowak was a Naval Academy graduate, a mother of three and an accomplished astronaut who in July 2006 went to the International Space Station as a mission specialist on the shuttle Discovery. Less than a year later, in the midst of an affair with a fellow astronaut, she made national news by driving 900 miles to confront her lover’s other girlfriend. She wore a wig and a trench coat and had in her car a knife, a BB pistol, a steel mallet and surgical tubing. She became the butt of many jokes, lost her job and was discharged from the Navy.
The headlines often summed up the situation as a torrid love triangle. Some wondered why a woman with a family and so many professional accomplishments would risk everything for an affair. Love makes you crazy, many concluded. But “Lucy in the Sky” foists an alternate narrative on the situation: What if it wasn’t really a jealous lover’s rage? What if 12 days, 18 hours and 36 minutes in space changes a person’s composition in ways that for all of our years of space travel we have yet to really reconcile with?
It’s a fascinating question, but one that “Lucy in the Sky” only kind of deals with. Natalie Portman assumes the role of the protagonist who the movie calls Lucy Cola for perhaps no other reason other than having the excuse to use The Beatles song. She is a no-nonsense scientist who has spent her life striving to be the best, overcoming such professional handicaps as being a woman and not having an Ivy League education. She has a thick southern accent, an inexplicable Dorothy Hamill haircut, a sweet and doting husband, Drew (Dan Stevens) who can’t open jars without her help, and, in this account, no children. She does, however, have a teenage niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) who she often has to look after.
We meet Lucy in space and it’s a powerful moment. Portman’s almond eyes tear up and submit to the overwhelming enormousness of being wholly alone in the darkness. She sees her small life on earth as though in a trance. And suddenly it’s over and she’s back to doing school pickups and opening jars and running laps. It’s a comedown that she’s not prepared for, which is part of the reason why she finds herself in an extramarital dalliance with a fellow astronaut, Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), who has also had a life changing experience in space and come back somewhat broken.
There are moments of intense beauty in “Lucy in the Sky,” mostly when Hawley zooms in on his star’s evocative face. But Portman alone can’t save this muddled endeavor. In his feature directorial debut, the creator of the “Fargo” and “Legion” television series tries to do too much to make everything more interesting (like changing the aspect ratio of the frame more than a few times and forcing an eye-rolling butterfly metaphor into the story). In the end, too, neither Lucy nor Lisa is redeemed or made more remarkable. The film still settles for a sensationalist climax in an airport parking lot with Portman in a wig and a trench coat confronting Mark and his new girlfriend Erin (Zazie Beetz in a mostly thankless role).
It’d be too easy to try to blame all the men involved, but in the past few years we’ve had a number of quite interesting, nuanced and entertaining looks at tabloid scandals including “Molly’s Game,” ”I, Tonya” and even this year’s “Hustlers” — two of which were written and directed by men. The “Lucy” team just missed the mark.
“Lucy in the Sky,” a Fox Searchlight/Walt Disney Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for language and some sexual content.” Running time: 124 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr