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TIFF: "Lucy in the Sky" Flung Out of Taste

by Chris Feil

Fargo and Legion’s Noah Hawley makes his big screen directorial leap with Lucy in the Sky, a loosely transcribed true story stripped of its sensationalism. But despite this diaperless retelling of the infamous story of an earthbound astronaut’s struggles with mental illness and her eventual attempt on her lover’s life, Hawley still flattens the drama for this would-be intense character study. Even with Natalie Portman at its forefront, doing another of her signature bold, safety-net-free characterizations, Hawley’s more pseudo-humane vision is defined by its inertia. It’s too boring to be embarrassing...

Lucy Cola’s breakdown happens in stages, beginning with her initial readjustments to the mundanity of life on the ground. Dan Stevens play her dull, dutiful husband, whose patience and consideration registers to Lucy as useless, distancing platitudes. Meanwhile, she cares for her drunken matriarch (Ellen Burstyn) and a teenage niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) left behind by a deadbeat brother, the spectre of family troubles forever hovering around her. The space program proved to be not only an unmatchable glory outsized to her difficult past, but an escape from all her life’s ailments. When she begins an affair with a fellow astronaut (Jon Hamm) as she attempts to earn a competitive spot on a new mission, her depression becomes displaced into the relationship with dissociative personal consequences.

The film is seldom the cringefest it initially sets itself up to become, beyond some of Burstyn’s droll slurrings about the after-effects of “astronaut dick” and a late one-way argument with Rosetta Stone. No, the dominant trait of the film is emptiness, with its few observations about Lucy’s inner life and slow (but not methodical) build ultimately serving little payoff. Even when it’s handsomely made, Lucy in the Sky is just hollow.

If Hawley was attempting a more empathic portrait of this particular story defined by its more shocking elements, he mostly misses the mark by still making a fairly reductive depiction of mental illness. While Lucy may not be the most forthcoming or expressive protagonist, the film’s screenplay (revised by Hawley from an earlier script by Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown) struggles to find moments that ask more than blankness or fantasy from her. Her competitiveness is cliched, her flirtations unmotivated, her psychosis detailed as broadly as possible.

That lack of nuance is equally matched by the film’s visual aesthetics, constantly shifting aspect ratios as its one idea to convey a sense of mental claustrophobia. The film is an entry level example of the difference between showing and telling, leaving neither trust for the audience to understand her descent nor the actress who portrays it. Portman isn’t at sea in the least, but her performance feels cut off at the knees, with Hawley’s skin-deep interests confining Portman’s ability to take massive risks. There is perhaps something more minutely refined in Portman’s pinched posture, but the film gathers no excitement for anything she is doing.

The film is ultimately a character piece uninterested in really creating a living, breathing person in which to observe. Hawley may aim to illuminate the progression Lucy’s mental state, but all he actually does is shout “ain’t this lady crazy?”. C-

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Reader Comments (14)

I think I prefer the film in its original title Pale Blue Dot and the fact that it was based on a real-life story but without the insanity of the road trip with a diaper and shit. I'll wait for it on TV just to watch it as a PO'TMAN MOTHAFUCKA! completist.

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I'm not the biggest fan of Noah Hawley's TV efforts to begin with (Personally, Legion is better than Fargo, but not by that much and for very similar reasons), so I really wasn't expecting much from this. Not sick of superheroes/supervillains in general, but REALLY not interested in whatever his take on Doctor Doom was going to be.

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Oh dear, I had high hopes for this as a Portman fan... I still think she’s next in line to a 2nd Oscar... (maybe 3rd after Renee :))

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

So that's this and The Goldfinch added to the This Had Oscar Buzz list.

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Sounds like the director's journeyman intuition isn't an actual hindrance to Portman's nomination worthy work. Which continues the tradition of Fox Searchlight securing Natalie in the best actress category: Black Swain and Jackie.

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

What a world we live in that this and The Goldfinch are busts and Hustlers is a critics darling :)

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

And Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat and its cast (Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone, etc) are having terrible reviews. No Meryl this time at the Oscars...

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Davis

the festival season has yet to deliver a La La Land, Arrival, those films that most people definitely LOVE initially (critics included), that are also going to make a lot of money and get Best Pic nods

the beginning of Oscar buzz season can only be described as WEAK at this point

it'll be interesting to see how this unfolds

I have high hopes for Ad Astra

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Yeah - what's going on with this year's slate!? There are almost no viable contenders at all. Are we looking at another 1994 in Best Actress?

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

There are a lot of movies that are yet to premiere. I have high hopes for Little Women and The Irishman. Cats may be a weird surprise. I doubt 1917 will appeal to me, but it may appeal to a whole lot of people. I've probably forgotten about others.

Parasite seems even more admired at this point than Roma was last year. Does it have any detractors? I understand it won't make a lot of money, but...

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

It’s looking like Renée, Scarlett, Saoirse...I hope Lupita. Not a good year if we can’t think of 5.

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSwifty

Jodie Smith Turner for Queen and Slim is someone to watch out for in Best Actress.

I am confident with Renee and Scarlett then maybe Deneuve,Woodard and Ronan.

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I wonder when this site’s Oscar chart is gonna be updated because as usual, a lot of things don’t seem right after the fall festivals. Many people flopped and as usual many were discovered. I mean did anybody think JLo was ever gonna need to be a thing at least in the second tier of BSA predictions?

September 15, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermafer

This gives me Von Lux vibes.

I'll be very curious to see how the Best Actress nominees shake out. Given that this year seems like a less crowded year than the last few, I'm hoping some of the wonderful performances from earlier in the year get recognized--specifically Lupita Nyong'o for Us and Julianne Moore for Gloria Bell.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

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