Natalie Portman is clearly drawn to characters who undergo a surreal evolution of one sort or another. She has her “Black Swan” Oscar to prove it. There’s also the 2018 sci-fi release “Annihilation,” which cast her as a biologist enveloped by alien psychedelia, and another credit from last year, “Vox Lux,” about a school-shooting survivor catapulted to equally annihilative pop music stardom.
Portman’s affinity is again on display in “Lucy in the Sky,” a nominally fictionalized account of the psychological spiral of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, arrested in 2007 for the attempted kidnapping of her colleague/onetime lover’s girlfriend. (You’ll likely recall the story for its luridly reported detail — mercifully skipped by director Noah Hawley, of TV’s “Fargo” — that Nowak donned diapers en route to the crime.) It’s a deep-thinking character study that’s provocatively if imperfectly presented — at least until the story devolves right along with its subject’s state of mind.
We first meet twangy, eminently capable Lucy Cola (Portman) in orbit, existentially overcome by the view on a jaunt outside the International Space Station. Portman’s expressive brown eyes have never been so luminously shot, all wonder and rapturous joy. Still, didn’t David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” clue us in that it’s a red flag when an astronaut implores, “Just a few more minutes?”
Lucy returns home to Houston in a mind-blown daze, despite insisting she’s A-OK to her husband (Dan Stevens, of Hawley’s “Legion”), her nana (sassy Ellen Burstyn), and an agency shrink (Nick Offerman). Her struggle to voice this fusion of outer space and head space is intriguing character work, leaving us both guessing at her thoughts and anxious to hear them articulated.
Lucy’s gauziness makes her receptive to come-and-hang overtures from astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) and some other fellow mission vets who know the feeling. But as Lucy’s involvement with Mark grows, and as NASA recruit Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz) enters the picture, we wonder: Are we witnessing spiritually transcendent intimacy in the “Close Encounters” vein, or something not quite so profound?
Lucy’s yearning to return to the stars gets more desperate as it gets increasingly muddled with her adulterous unraveling. This bad behavior muddles the film’s tone, too, as we dive no deeper into Lucy’s cosmic pensiveness. Instead, the story takes a jarring (if factually rooted) turn toward Crazytown, down to a kidnapping-supply run set to the B-52s.
It’s one cartoon touch too many, given that we’d already been asked to indulge — hi-dilly-ho! — Stevens’s character’s inexplicable Ned Flanders vibe. (His mustache seems like an even odder choice than Portman’s Dorothy Hamill bob.) And did Hawley have to take his eloquent first-act chrysalis-and-butterfly motif and beat it into such a blunt metaphor? As with Portman’s performance, we had hoped to be more transported by what finally emerged.
LUCY IN THE SKY
Directed by Noah Hawley. Written by Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Hawley. Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, West Newton. 124 minutes. R (language, some sexual content).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.