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‘Lucy in the Sky’: Portman, we have a problem

In a hugely disappointing, scatterbrained drama set at NASA, the actress delivers a feverish performance that borders on camp.

Two weeks in space transform an unstable astronaut (Natalie Portman) in “Lucy in the Sky.”
Fox Searchlight

In the 1999 romantic comedy classic “Notting Hill,” Julia Roberts’ movie star Anna Scott wears a distractingly bad wig while playing an astronaut in a film called “Helix.”

It looks terrible.

At times “Lucy in the Sky” feels like a remake of that fake movie, what with Natalie Portman playing an astronaut and sporting a hairdo not dissimilar to Anna Scott’s in “Helix.”

The real movie is just as awful as what we imagined about the fake movie.

“Lucy in the Sky” is very loosely based on an infamous, real-life scandal involving a NASA astronaut who had an extramarital affair with a colleague and was charged with the attempted kidnapping and attempted murder of his new lover.

There’s certainly more than enough material there to launch a movie, but in the hands of veteran television director and showrunner Noah Hawley (“Fargo,” “Legion”), who is making his feature film debut, “Lucy in the Sky” is an irritatingly self-conscious, maddeningly rudderless and scatterbrained story that bounces all over the place and never finds an identity.

It will, however, drive you nuts with all the needless and distracting shifts in aspect ratio, all the gimmicky overhead shots, all the heavy-handed metaphors about butterflies and cocoons, and rocket ships and sex.

Not to mention one of the dumbest “Let’s go bowling!” sequences in motion picture history.

Drifting in and out of a heavy Texas accent, Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, a singularly focused, seriously intense and fiercely competitive astronaut who is transformed by her two weeks in space on a space shuttle assignment.

It’s not a good transformation.

Lucy feels disconnected from the mundane realities of everyday life. She wonders, how can people go to Applebee’s when there’s a great big universe out there?

I’m not kidding. She actually voices that opinion.

Lucy starts drinking and coming home late to her adoring, oblivious husband (Dan Stevens), who is very slow to catch on Lucy might not JUST be drinking. In fact, Lucy has entered into an affair with her fellow astronaut Mark (Jon Hamm), an oily womanizer who’s big on day-drinking, spouts nonsense existentialist philosophy and late one night sits alone on his sofa, watching and re-watching and re-watching video of the Challenger explosion.

What a catch.

The great Ellen Burstyn wanders in and out of the movie as Lucy’s grandmother, who is more of a collection of clichés than an actual character. (She curses, she smokes even though she’s on an oxygen tank, she’s always gripin’ and speakin’ her mind, damn the consequences).

Pearl Amanda Dickson plays Lucy’s teenage niece, Blue Iris, who has been saddled with that porn star name and has come to live with Lucy and her husband because her mom is dead and her father is an irresponsible fool. The wonderful Zazie Beetz is given little to do as Erin, a rookie astronaut who is also having an affair with Mark, because as we mentioned earlier, Mark is just the worst. (In a late moment, Mark also proves to be quite the coward.)

Lucy is clearly unbalanced and in need of serious help, as evidenced by her nearly killing herself when she tries to outperform Erin’s time in an underwater training exercise, or when she has a meltdown after a funeral service and starts ripping off the wallpaper in her house, or when she commits a felony at work, or when she starts stalking Mark, or when —

You get the idea. Unfortunately, the screenplay has Lucy acting out like a bratty adolescent, making it difficult for the audience to connect with her and root for her to find some measure of inner peace. She’s a loud and hot mess — prone to trance-like gazes, incoherent mumbling, incomprehensible rants and manic, impulsive actions. There’s a borderline campy element to Portman’s feverish performance, and the pretentious cinematography choices and look-at-THIS directorial style just make it worse.

Unintentionally funny and then just plain sad, “Lucy in the Sky” is one of the most disappointing films of 2019.