Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

SR Lucy in the Sky

Jon Hamm, left, and Natalie Portman play astronauts in 'Lucy in the Sky' (2019).

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In February 2007, a story broke that captured the public’s fascination for all the wrong reasons.

Astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged with attempting to kidnap and murder a romantic rival, having driven 900 miles to confront her, wearing a diaper the entire time so that she could avoid making any stops along the way.

The focus of late-night talk show hosts and watercooler talk wasn’t the circumstances of the crime or the effect it had on all involved but rather that a healthy, grown woman had been wearing a diaper.

Ironically, and regrettably, Noah Hawley’s “Lucy in the Sky” is being dogged by the same issue. Based on Nowak’s story, the film, much like Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” is a story of how one woman loses her grasp of reality to tragic results. And yet, far too many stories and reviews are focused on the fact that Hawley has left the diaper incident out.

This is a shame, as “Lucy” is a finely made, timely movie that despite its flaws contains a fully realized portrait of a woman who’s been set up for failure and suffers for failing to meet an ever-shifting set of professional requirements.

Natalie Portman is the astronaut in question, Lucy Cola, a woman who loves every single minute of what she does. This overachiever’s husband (Dan Stevens) fully supports her efforts to get to space and is understanding to a fault where her late hours are concerned. However, once she does complete a mission to the international space station, her return to normalcy is anything but smooth.

When she returns to Earth, she states that “everything is so small” and pales in comparison to her experience in outer space. Her depression leads her to begin an affair with fellow space traveler Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fling that becomes an obsession, prompting to act in ways that lead to the ruination of her marriage, career and reputation.

Hawley makes his presence known in good ways and bad. Digital projection now allows directors to manipulate the size of the screen we see as the movie goes on. Hawley employs a widescreen format for sequences that take place in outer space and then narrows it to the more square-like aspect ratio of 1:33-1 whenever Lucy is on Earth in order to underscore her sense of confinement. It’s an initially distracting technique but one the viewer quickly adjusts to.

Other attempts at symbolism are more ham-fisted and less effective. Monitoring the progress of a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly to mirror Lucy’s own changes is a miscalculation at best, amateurish at worst.

Meanwhile, the presence of Lucy’s niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) is inexplicable. Not fully developed as a character, she serves no purpose regarding the movement of the plot or in her interactions with others. If she were meant to reflect Lucy at a younger age — a woman dealing with her own issues and learning from the mistakes of her aunt — that would be something. But this is never fleshed out, and her presence is a needless distraction.

However, Portman’s impassioned, moving performance is the backbone of the film, and she does justice to the troubled woman she’s been charged with bringing to life.

Her descent from a confident woman to a desperate person grasping at straws to maintain her balance in a world that, to her, has suddenly gone mad, is a turn suffused with sympathy and passion. Focusing on Cola/Nowak’s troubles and not the odd behavior that was the result, Portman’s compassion brings the humanity of “Lucy” to the forefront where it belongs.

Also new in theaters

'Zombieland: Double Tap' a welcome return (★★★½ out of four). Sometimes you don’t realize you want something until it’s put in front of you. Such is the case with this film, a sequel we didn’t need but are glad we have.

Gleefully sophomoric, the film embraces its post-modern sensibility and runs with it, skewering not only itself and the zombie genre but a variety of social conventions and issues that assail the viewer much like its flesh-eating creatures pursue fresh brains.

Smart, funny and irreverent, this is the sort of movie that knows how smart it is yet doesn’t advertise it — it’s happy to deliver its message with a wink and a smile and move on to the next blood-soaked gag.

The quartet from the original of 10 years ago — a length of time the film itself acknowledges as being a bit too long to warrant a sequel — has fallen into a breezy survival routine. However, they decide they need an upgrade in their living conditions because, why not?

So, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) decide to take up residence in the White House.

Soon, dodgeball is being played in the Oval Office and sections of the portrait of William Howard Taft are being used to wrap Christmas presents.

Unfortunately, Little Rock is suffering from a case of ennui, longing for folks her own age to relate to. So she and big sister Wichita hit the road, prompting their two male cohorts to set out to “save” them. However, they have a new member of the clan, Madison (Zoey Deutch), an addle-brained sweetheart who in spite of her vacuous nature has somehow survived the apocalypse.

The road trip that ensues is rife with sexual tension once Wichita is back in the fold sans Little Rock, as Columbus finds himself in the middle of an awkward love triangle between her and Madison. Meanwhile, in one of the most inspired bits that’s far too short, Tallahassee and Columbus meet up with mirror images of themselves, Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch). All four men are oblivious to the fact that they are cut from the same cloth and are as irritating to each other as they are to everyone else.

The film needs much more of the banter between these four, especially when the story reaches Babylon, a utopia of sorts inhabited by politically-correct-minded folks who just want to follow a philosophy of peace, love and harmony as the world goes to hell. The extreme to which the citizens of this bastion carry out their nonviolent beliefs is one of the movie’s better and most pointed barbs.

However, what truly saves this from being a run-of-the-mill part deux is Deutch. The actress takes hold of her character’s bimbo tendencies and runs with them. Bedecked in pink, sporting perfect hair and nails and equipped with a sense of optimism that could see beauty in a nuclear winter, Deutch is obviously relishing the opportunity to bring this well-meaning ditz to life, her clueless observations a perfect counterpoint to Stone’s sarcasm. She alone is worth the price of admission.

Fortunately, there’s more than Deutch to enjoy as the original quartet are as sharp as they were the first go around, their comic timing as sharp as a zombie-vanquishing machete. Director Ruben Fleischer keeps the festivities moving at a brisk pace while all involved make living through a zombie apocalypse seem like not such a bad thing.

Wry and sarcastic, this film makes me think I wouldn’t mind another visit to this wasteland of the undead. I’ll get out my 2029 calendar and pencil it in.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.