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Toronto Film Review: Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky

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The term “space case” may as well have been invented for Lucy Cola, a fictional astronaut loosely inspired by Lisa Nowak, who famously (if not entirely factually) donned adult diapers and powered her way cross-country to confront a romantic rival at the Orlando airport, where she was arrested for what amounted to attempted kidnapping and battery. When the story broke — this was a dozen years back, in 2007 — news outlets and tabloids alike treated it as a kind of pathetic “Fatal Attraction” scenario, in which a jealous NASA engineer couldnt handle being dumped by one of her colleagues and went berserk.

Now, Natalie Portman offers an alternate interpretation. In its oddly understanding and stylistically ambitious way, “Lucy in the Sky” suggests that maybe outer space was to blame for Nowaks actions. You see, as an astronaut, Nowak belonged to a very small club of super-achievers who have actually touched the heavens, looking down on our tiny blue planet. As a woman, she had to work harder than her male colleagues to earn a spot on the Discovery shuttle.

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No doubt an experience like that changes someone, which is the liftoff point for this distractingly over-directed big-screen debut from TV helmer Noah Hawley (“Legion,” “Fargo”) — a gifted visual storyteller who triple-knots his own shoelaces here, stumbling over cumbersome metaphors (butterflies, floating) and high-concept solutions to straightforward dramatic problems when he should have just entrusted his leading lady to carry the narrative. For example, in the opening scene, Hawley contrasts the glorious full-screen splendor of Earth seen from above with a narrower, pillarboxed view of things back on terra firma. Playing with the matting thus is a nifty idea, but one that imposes a kind of formal subjectivity upon the movie, inadvertently competing with Portmans performance. (Later, Hawley and DP Polly Morgan alternate between aspect ratios so often that it starts to feel like someone has grabbed both of your ears and is playing your head like a giant accordion.)

In any case, the script (which Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote, and Hawley retooled) floats its armchair analysis of the character early, when a post-touchdown therapist played by Nick Offerman (bearded and wheelchair-bound, like some kind of eccentric comic book character) quotes Michael Collins, who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission. Stuck orbiting the moon while those two made their famous walk, Collins reportedly wrote, “I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.”

Surely space must have had a profound impact on Nowak — whom well refer to as Lucy going forward, since the film strays pretty far from the truth in its exploration of her psychology. Why Lucy? As far-out pop songs go, Elton Johns “Rocket Man” and David Bowies “Space Oddity” are both about spacemen, and the filmmakers clearly wanted something equivalently ladylike to play over the movies trippiest sequence — not counting the vaguely “Gravity”-like opening, when Portmans kaleidoscope-eyed Lucy sees her life from above and suffers a kind of existential crisis.

From space, Lucy watches everything that once felt so important — her husband, Drew (Dan Stevens), daughter Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) and supportive, chain-smoking granny (Ellen Burstyn) — flash by like a montage (actually, it is a montage). Later, confiding in flirtatious fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), Lucy explains in her thick Texas drawl, “You go up there, you see the whole universe, and everything down here seems so small.”

Its the kind of observation the film treats as if you had to be there — like blasting past the atmosphere is the only way to lose perspective on ones terrestrial concerns. Except that there are a thousand ways that happens to people every day: a near-death experience, falling in love, being treated as a celebrity. When its used to justify an extramarital affair, its called rationalization, and while Im not here to judge Lucy for it, the movie seems to go to extraordinary lengths to suggest that her garden-variety enviousness was somehow special when in fact, it was her reaction that made her case exceptional.

“Lucy in the Sky” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equivalent of Amazon Studios “Lorena,” which takes the feminist (although “humanist” would be equally apt) approach to a notorious tabloid case by approaching Lorena Bobbitt as a victim, and investigating what led her to lop off husband John Waynes offending organ. Hawleys film wants to have it both ways, playing it sensitive one moment and sensationalist the next. But it does take the step of confronting the systemic flaw — workplace sexism — that played into Lucys actions. She may have been having an off-limits (indeed illegal, according to military rules, since she was married) affair with a colleague, but she wasnt doing it alone. Portman radiates confidence in the role, ably masking the characters well-hidden vulnerability. And while Hamm may be handsome, hes playing a superior officer who further abuses his power after jettisoning Lucy for another colleague (Zazie Beetz).

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