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Review: Natalie Portman Transcends the Limits of Lucy in the Sky

by Ace Damon
Review: Natalie Portman Transcends the Limits of Lucy in the Sky

No, the astronaut diaper movie has no diapers. That was pretty much the main fight in Lucy in the Sky when the film, by director Noah Hawley and October 2, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. The movie – based loosely on the real-life story of a NASA astronaut who was arrested for attempting kidnapping after a bizarre series of events involving a long trip and some adult diapers – was immediately framed in this one context. Which is understandable, if unhappy. It's a crazy story of true pathetic crime; It's the kind of thing we yearn for now.

But to the credit of Hawley (and his co-writers Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi), Lucy in the Sky is a bit more haughty (heh) than serving the easy diaper disaster. Instead, the film examines this strange story, closes its eyes, and imagines a great kind of cosmic crisis, existential yearning, and terror hovering in the heart of America. I'm an idiot for movies or plays or whatever a slanderous and ridiculed figure and I see the grand, the emotional and the poetic in their nasty little feud. That way, Lucy in the Sky might be almost a weird movie or an adjacent weirdo; a story of confusing, doomed affirmation of the truest self, with a wild diva in the center.

OK, OK, I could be making Lucy in the Sky look a little more exciting than it really is. In fact, Hawley's film has some difficulty, as he repeats motives and ideas over and over in a hectic cycle, hoping to throw some air into his heavyweight film. He doesn't take the movie to the deepest place I think he wanted, but it comes kind of close. I appreciate such an attempt; nervous and dreamy and attuned to the great pain in the center of life.

Hawley is an interesting entity. Prior to Lucy in the Sky, he worked primarily in books and television, writing some highly regarded novels and creating the award-winning adaptation of the Coen brothers' Fargo FX series. This anthology show has the same melancholy whisper as Lucy, a timbre that creaks and sighs with deep tiredness. Life is kind of sad and silly, Fargo and Lucy suggest, a melancholy assessment that is hard to disagree with. On the other hand, Lucy also bears a resemblance to Legion, Hawley's unreadable and annoying comic series about a possible superhero with a troubled mind. Lucy takes some Legion-style strands into aesthetic pretension, particularly with its ever-changing aspect ratio, the size of the canvas expanding and shrinking rapidly. It's a distracting device whose argument needs to be mentioned only once: yes, the boundaries of the title character's world keep changing. We understand.

The film's main asset, rather than Hawley's curvy brain, is its star, Natalie Portman. Portman was on a journey of self-discovery in the post-Black Swan years, taking on a carefully selected set of challenges that required intense focus and commitment from the actors. She boldly and emotionally courted the camp like a mourning first lady in Jackie. She poked at identity issues in the dark and engaging science fiction Annihilation. And she did what the hell she was doing in Vox Lux. Portman was completely hallucinated, and it is a joy to watch, an actress so drawn to the enormous edges of her craft.

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