Eleven years after seeing The Hurt Locker for the first and only time, the scene that’s most ingrained in my memory has nothing to do with IEDs in a godforsaken desert. It’s Jeremy Renner back home, lost in the supermarket, stymied by a wall of cereal.
Describing a kind of domestic impotence, it remains the quintessential poetic image of war’s addictive pull. The battlefield has become such a natural home that, anywhere else, the soldier just feels plucked.
When it’s most on point — namely the first hour — Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky explores similar sensations, this time from the perspective of an interstellar traveler so compulsively drawn to the cosmos that she’s unable to readjust to life on terra firma. NASA astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), who spent 10 days in space inhaling the orchestral majesty of Earth’s place in the universe, returns to her Texas home a changed woman, one literally and psychically untethered.
Lucy is married to Drew (Dan Stevens), an affable, God-fearing public relations executive at NASA, a man wincingly unprepared for what’s to come. She fails to inform him about the bowling-night invitation she accepts from raffish colleague Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) — a playboy whom Drew aptly characterizes as “a divorced action figure who likes to go fast.”
Mark has been to space, too — he understands Lucy’s ache for the stars, at least enough to inspire a romp on the flatbed of his truck, the overture to an affair that, for Lucy, is the sordid beginning of a mental schism culminating in a wild and murderous road trip.
If this latter development sounds familiar, it’s because Hawley and his fellow screenwriters Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi based their story on the real-life breakdown of Lucy Nowak, the spurned astronaut who, in 2007, drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando to kidnap a fellow astronaut’s girlfriend.
This sordid love triangle made for cruel tabloid fodder on the late-night shows. While Lucy in the Sky endeavors for a more empathetic portrait of its protagonist, the gaucheness of Hawley’s technique and artistic choices send the film down a self-conscious and chintzy path from which it never recovers.
This is a surprising disappointment given Hawley’s success as the showrunner of Fargo, a series whose formal adventurism is one of its strengths. Here, though, his aesthetic signature — a restless toggling of aspect ratios, between a square format for Lucy’s domestic life and a letterbox ratio roughly deployed when she’s in space or in a training exercise — feels like an amateurish and unnecessary gimmick, if not a crutch.
Furthermore, his music choices are pointless or off-putting. An ethereal, and perhaps inevitable, cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” from composer Jeff Russo and vocalist Lisa Hannigan feels both overly literal and woefully out of place, with no purpose other than to justify the reference in the movie’s title.
Worse yet is the usage of the B-52s party anthem “My Own Private Idaho” over a scene in which Lucy and her unwitting co-conspirator niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) raid a convenience store for the gloves, tubing and makeshift weaponry that supplement her misguided road trip — which has the effect of presenting her mental breakup as, well, fun.
Not every exploitation film is intended to be one. It’s only the unaware examples, like Lucy in the Sky, the cast the style in a negative light. The more it becomes a cut-rate Fatal Attraction, the more its early compassion for its troubled subject wilts on the altar of B-movie entertainment.
Lucy Cola is not a martyred woman in a man’s world, as the film’s half-baked feminism would want you to believe. She’s a routine nutcase held up for our tongue-clicking — our awful enjoyment. Lucy Nowak deserves better.
LUCY IN THE SKY. Director: Noah Hawley; Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo, Ellen Burstyn, Pearl Amanda Dickson; Distributor: Disney; Rated R; Opens Friday at most area theaters