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"LUCY IN THE SKY"
(2019) (Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Forever changed by her 10-day stint in space, an astronaut tries to cope with her newfound perspective on her life and the world and the effect that has on her family life and career.
PLOT:
NASA astronaut Lucy Cola (NATALIE PORTMAN) has recently completed a 10-day stint in orbit and returned a changed woman. Now experiencing space wanderlust and thinking life on Earth is small compared to the cosmos, she yearns to return, and promises her husband, Drew (DAN STEVENS), that after one more mission they can have a baby. Until then, their surrogate child is their 16-year-old niece, Blue Iris (PEARL AMANDA DICKSON), whose mother is dead while her dad is a deadbeat father.

Lucy's grandmother, Nana (ELLEN BURSTYN), tells the teen to watch and learn from Lucy, but little do they know that she's recently fallen for fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (JON HAMM) who's now separated from his wife. And Lucy doesn't have a clue that he's also seeing another younger astronaut, Erin Eccles (ZAZIE BEETZ), who's in the running for a coveted spot on an upcoming Space Shuttle mission.

As Lucy gets deeper into her affair with Mark while she relentlessly pursues being assigned to that mission, her type-A personality leads to questionable decisions and behavior, all of which threatens to derail everything she's worked for, both professionally and personally.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. But it can also breed longings or lust when the situation and people involved allow such feelings to blossom. Yes, plenty of people somehow manage to work alongside their colleagues and not develop romantic or sexual feelings for them. But I bet you know at least one person who ended up having a fling (and maybe something more permanent) with a coworker. And I'm guessing the involved parties weren't both single at the time, were they?

Such workplace romance can take place in any line of work, but I've never seen any studies suggesting some vocations being more prone to that happening than others. I'd guess, though, that those with high levels of stress could be at the top of such lists, and if there's any job where the sky is figuratively and literally the limit for work intensity, being an astronaut has to be up there.

After all, the years needing to be put in just to be considered for the illustrious career are insane, as is the training that follows. Throw in the costs of what such folks are operating along with the high-risk factor, and the stress would likely do in normal folks. Yet, at least on the surface and under public scrutiny, they appear above any of that.

That is, at least most of them. And then along came the story back in early 2007 where astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested less than a year after her trip on Space Shuttle Discovery. Following a non-stop drive from Houston to Orlando, the married woman's goal was to kidnap U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman who was romantically involved with Nowak's former lover and fellow astronaut, William Oefelein.

All of that serves as the "inspired by" basis for "Lucy in the Sky" (without diamonds, it seems), a drama about an astronaut (Natalie Portman) whose life is so changed from her 10-day stint in space that she returns home to her husband (Dan Stevens) a changed woman. And one who then gets all hot and bothered for another astronaut (Jon Hamm) who's recently separated from his wife and now playing the field, not only with the titular protagonist, but another younger astronaut (Zazie Beetz).

But it takes a while for the two-hour film -- directed by Noah Hawley from a script he co-wrote with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi -- to get around to that love triangle and the fall-out that ensues. Until then, it's a look at a hard-charging astronaut who returns to Earth with her perspective on nearly everything forever altered, all while dealing with her cantankerous grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and 16-year-old niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson).

It's an initially interesting and certainly understandable reaction to having spent time just a bit out in the cosmos, and Portman does a decent job portraying that (all while seemingly channeling Holly Hunter - or at least the sort of determined Southern gal that actress used to play).

Most of that, though, sadly gets pushed aside for the first-time feature director's decision to continuously alter the film's aspect ratio up on the screen. Sometimes the film appears normally framed and then transitions to a boxier 4:3 ratio before returning to the previous state and even occasionally going super-wide.

I fully understand what he's trying to do symbolically (all things space-related are wide and open to possibilities while the protagonist's life to which she returned now has her boxed-in. The problem is that it's distracting watching the ratio change before your eyes (it flows from one to the other rather than simply cutting) and each time it happens (particularly early on) it completely removes you from the experience.

Other directors probably would have used shot composition and camera framing for the same sort of thematic effect without calling attention to such symbolism. As it stands, it sort of feels akin to watching an effort from a student filmmaker -- which Hawley is not -- who's trying to be creative without worrying about being subtle.

That and the somewhat abrupt change in tone and storyline in the third act (despite the "inspired by" pedigree) results in an offering that just doesn't work as well as intended. Lucy might want to get back up in the sky, but the attempts of being visually creative end up as distracting as if she had been adorned with big shiny diamonds. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed September 30, 2019 / Posted October 4, 2019


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