Released 2019. Director: Noah Hawley
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS BY THE BEATLES has some of the most tripping lyrics. John Lennon painted his song with images of tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, and a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. How Noah Hawley connects the song to his movie is a bit of a stretch. Other than a character named Lucy who’s gone up to the sky as an astronaut, anything else is tenuous. Lucy isn’t even the real name on whom this movie is “inspired by”.
As the story goes, Lucy Cola has just returned to Earth after a successful mission. Her experience of seeing the world floating in space has fundamentally changed her perspectives on life.
Back on solid ground, a married life in the suburbs has lost its appeal and Lucy feels compelled to get on the next available space ride. She lies to her husband about training when she’s really hanging out at the bowling alley with a select group of astronauts, people who get how she feels. Before long she starts an affair with Mark (Jon Hamm), head of the upcoming mission, who subtly encourages Lucy’s infidelity.
Feeling that NASA is pressuring her off the next mission (they suspect she’s not ready to return just yet), Lucy becomes paranoid. She breaks into Mark’s computer and learns that he’s recommended NASA to pass her over; and he’s also sleeping with fellow astronaut Erin (Zazie Beetz). Enraged with a sense of betrayal, Lucy drives across the country to confront Mark with a gun, picking up hardware tools and a blond wig along the way.
If the movie tries to paint a picture of a woman as capable as an astronaut having a breakdown, it’s going about in the wrong direction to shore up our sympathy for Lucy. To begin with, Lucy is an emotionally distant character who is not entirely blameless in her predicament. Along with screenwriters Brian Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, Hawley fails to make a convincing case for Lucy’s existential angst. His heavy-handedness is apparent in piling on Lucy’s woes with her grief over her grandmother’s death, plus an abandoned niece thrust in her care.
Natalie Portman has cornered the market playing women in a state of distress, as exemplified in her best work such as Black Swan, Jackie and Annihilation. Lucy is a dramatic sister of these other characters except she doesn’t connect. Lucy in the Sky makes a false promise at the start to peer into the mind of an obsessed astronaut and a disenfranchised wife but ends up with a clichéd depiction of a crazy aunt pointing a gun at her boyfriend in a car park.
One is tempted to argue how much of Lucy’s breakdown is her own doing, and how much is the result of being jilted by her lover. Whatever we make of it, Lucy in the Sky is a rather clumsy and muddled attempt at telling stories and posing questions. Whilst it makes us watch a woman in the process of losing control, it tries and fails at drawing sympathy, which is tragic because the movie could have said so much about the role of smart women in a male-dominated field, the intense pressure and the ramifications, the competitiveness and the power dynamics, amongst other issues. Instead, they waste the talent of someone like Natalie Portman and the movie is a disservice to the portrayal of women astronauts, or women in exceptional positions in general. Not to mention hijacking a classic song to suggest some vague connections.
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