Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Lucy In The Sky
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

If I had a dime for every movie “based on” or “inspired by” true events that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival…well, let’s just say I’d have enough change in my pocket to pick up a couple extra slices of Pizza Pizza during the downtime between screenings at the Scotiabank. But among this year’s ripped-from-reality crop, Noah Hawley’s Lucy In The Sky (Grade: C) does stand out. It is, after all, the rare and curious stranger-than-fiction dramatization that’s actually less strange, and less sensational, than the true story on which it’s based. Much less interesting, too.

Natalie Portman has been cast as Lucy Cola, who’s modeled on the real Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who—in February of 2007—was arrested for the attempted kidnapping of Colleen Shipman, a U.S. Air Force Captain. It was the bizarre, sordid details of the incident that turned it into headline news and late-night joke fodder. The two women had been involved with the same man, fellow astronaut William Oefelein, which framed Nowalk’s actions as a crime of passion—the desperate behavior of a scorned lover. And then there was everything leading up to the attempted kidnapping: a long road trip from Houston to Orlando; a car full of supplies, including a gun and a drilling hammer and a wig; and the oddest element of the story, that Nowalk was allegedly wearing NASA-grade adult diapers when she was arrested.

Lucy In The Sky builds to that fateful day; the whole film, really, is prelude to the news-of-the-weird item that serves as its climax. Yet Hawley and the other screenwriters, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown, don’t merely take liberties with the facts, a common and forgivable approach to turning real events into movie drama. They actually jettison some of its most attention-grabbing elements—including, yes, for real, I’m not kidding, the whole diaper thing. That’s what’s so baffling about the film: It probably wouldn’t exist without those details, and indeed, most of its runtime is occupied by what feels like perfunctory setup for them. And yet after nearly two hours of laying groundwork, Lucy In The Sky downplays (and renders more generic) its whole ostensible raison d’être. It’d be like if 127 Hours ended with Aron Ralston dislocating his shoulder to escape.

The film does boast a credible (if fairly obvious) theory as to what might have pushed one of NASA’s finest over the edge. Opening with Portman’s Lucy floating in space, her eyes locked on the majesty of the whole planet laid out before her, Lucy In The Sky suggests that its subject’s actions may have been an expression of dissatisfaction—the boredom of life back on Earth, where nothing could possibly compare to her experience up there. Yet there’s nothing especially gripping about Lucy’s restlessness in her marriage to a supportive square (Dan Stevens); First Man handled that home-front stuff much more elegantly. Nor is there much heat in her affair with the Oefelein character (a well-cast Jon Hamm) or her competition with the Shipman substitute (Zazie Beetz), reimagined as a NASA rival for narrative expediency. Hawley, creator of Fargo and Legion, seems to recognize that all of this might be as dull to us as it is to Lucy, and (over)compensates with a lot of his signature garish style: exaggerated camera angles; a hospital-traversing reverie set to a cover of the relevant Beatles song; an aspect ratio that keeps expanding and contracting to express the difference between the transcendent experience of floating through the cosmos and the comparably stifling routines of terra firma.

But the movie misjudges the poignancy of its manufactured arc. Its refusal to trudge up and accurately recreate the story’s most bizarre twists and turns feels misguidedly beholden to the banal material leading up to the final act. In other words, we don’t get the diaper stuff because that wouldn’t quite square with the more sympathetic tone of the movie—maybe it’d feel like mocking a character whom we’re meant to relate to and feel sorry for up to that point. The irony, of course, is that the only reason anyone would stick out such a boring character study is that there’s some wild shit waiting at the end of it. Usually, when you deviate from the facts of a story, it’s to embellish them a little for the sake of a more exciting yarn. Lucy In The Sky, quite perplexingly, does the opposite. You’re left wondering why anyone would make the astronaut-in-a-diaper movie if they didn’t want to make an astronaut-in-a-diaper movie.

Bad Education
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Maybe this didn’t need to be a movie at all. I had my doubts, too, about the cinematic potential of the Roslyn academic scandal, in which it was discovered that a couple of high-ranking administrators of a public school district in New York embezzled millions of taxpayer dollars. But Cory Finley’s Bad Education (Grade: B+) gets some real dramatic juice out of what became a national story, largely by building itself around a compelling personality: district superintendent Frank Tassone, who Hugh Jackman—in one of his most intelligent and complicated performances—portrays as a pathological compartmentalizer, somehow capable of squaring his genuine, inspiring commitment as an educator with his vanity and secretly pursued self-interests. (The movie treats the financial crimes like an extension of the double personal life he was living under the community’s nose.)

I did some squaring of my own watching the film. As a follow-up to Thoroughbreds, Finley’s electrifying first feature, Bad Education is a little disappointing–it’s not nearly as unconventional, at least formally speaking, as his debut. But I’m also fascinated by the elaborate schemes of con artists, and the investigations that expose them. Though its muckraking reporter is just a high-school kid (Geraldine Viswanathan from Blockers), Bad Education boasts an uncovering-the-truth narrative nearly as queasily gripping as that of Shattered Glass. The script, by Mike Makowsky, takes great care to lay out the interpersonal dynamics of the school system, then begins to tear back the veil to reveal what few within that system knew or allowed themselves to see. The strength of Jackman’s performance is that he hoodwinks us with his decency, showing us how Tassone (transgressing in concert with another high-ranking administrator, played here by Allison Janney) hid under the prosperity and prestige he brought to the district, allowing everyone to consciously or unconsciously look the other way, because doing so benefitted them.

The Laundromat
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Like Lucy In The Sky, Bad Education takes liberties. The difference is that it does so to underline themes and strengthen characterizations. It’s proof that you can find a human story even in a subject as dry as an investigation into financial fraud. The Laundromat (Grade: C+), which also screened here in Toronto a few days ago, takes a different approach—what one might call the Adam McKay tact. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, working from regular screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ adaptation of a Jake Bernstein nonfiction book, the film attempts nothing less than laying out the full scope of the Panama Papers, the 11.5 million documents, leaked in 2015, that revealed a vast network of offshore accounts and illegal activity. Recognizing the impenetrability of the subject, Burns fashions the facts into a mixed-modes essay, combining the amateur investigation of a widow (Meryl Streep) with several narrative detours involving various wrongdoers and a fourth-wall-breaking framing device in which two of the bigwigs at the top of the scandal (played here by Gary Oldman and Antonio Bandereas) offer a crash course in financial crime.

This is, in other words, a pretty ambitious polemic. It’s also one of Soderbergh’s angriest anti-capitalist screeds, ballooning his general outrage about corrupt systems—a hallmark of nearly all of his recent work—into a full-blown indictment of the way the entire global economy has been rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many. That may sound bracing, but the film’s globe-hopping ensemble structure is self-defeating. With the exception of one inspired passage involving a family negotiating an uncomfortable secret, the vignettes don’t hold much individual interest. And the comedy (lots of direct audience address) is as glib as it is in McKay’s recent tracts, leading me to believe that the explainer mode of moviemaking just isn’t my bag, even when a filmmaker as gifted as Soderbergh is the one doing the explaining. More on this one soon, as it hits Netflix at the end of this month.

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