Lucy is either the dumbest smart film or the smartest dumb film I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it would be quite as fabulous if it were anything else. Only Luc Besson could conceive of such a wild ride, crafted in the manner of high-end cheese, then slathered with earnest philosophical musings that somehow make it profound and ridiculous in equal measures. If Lucy could only manage one-half of that equation, it would crash and burn. Too far in one direction and you have another empty noise machine. Too far in the other, and you have an unwatchable dirge. It takes a particularly loopy genius to mash the two together. And if loopy’s your thing, Besson is the man to deliver it.
Certainly, he loves the central premise of this story, as a frightened, helpless woman becomes an all-destroying (or all-creating) goddess. He’s been down that road numerous times before, starting with his breakout film La Femme Nikita. In this case, the term “goddess” is literal. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) starts out as a slightly reckless flake partying her nights away in Taipei, only to be exposed to a concentrated form of a chemical found only in pregnant women, which basically turns her into Dr. Manhattan 2.0. Besson uses the idea to tackle weighty philosophical concepts of life, the universe and everything: a he-really-seems-to-mean it look at time and evolution, and the way our flawed perceptions limit our understanding of both.
It’s a vaguely interesting notion, unfurled with a lot of portentous exposition from Designated Super Genius Morgan Freeman and some clever montages involving wild animals. Lucy doesn’t think a lot of it through, but it dabbles with some exquisite possibilities, and the director knows how to deliver them with flair. Even so, it wouldn’t merit much attention on its own: perhaps a raised eyebrow and a few discussions in the coffee shop after the screening, but nothing to get too excited about.
Luckily, there’s a twist. Lucy is exposed to the drug after her skeezy boyfriend sells her out to the local Triad, who forcibly sew the bag into her so she can be their drug mule. When it all goes sideways, they try to kill her, with predictably one-sided results. Sadly, they’re also tenacious little buggers and don’t seem to know when to quit. Plus they have guns. Lots and lots of guns.
In a rational universe, these two concepts—gangster revenge flick and quest for higher purpose – would have no business interacting. They’d just eye each other suspiciously from across a crowded room, then go their separate ways. But Besson not only insists on mashing them together, he makes them absolutely indispensible to each other. The pretentious musings explode whenever a cranky Asian shows up, while the action carries something more interesting than just showing us how many outrageous ways a man can die. Besson’s obvious disregard for the laws of god and man somehow merge both ideas into a single coherent theme.
Pacing plays a key part in that, because if we slowed down to think about it, the daffy logic of the whole thing would come crashing down around our ears. Lucy benefits from fantastic composition: tight and sharply based, without losing the overheated fever that it needs to work. Johansson pulls a bit of a rabbit out of her hat with her performance, exhibiting the right kind of detachment as her “condition” progresses while aptly adding the assertive self-confidence she showed as the Black Widow. At 90 minutes, the film is over before you know it, and while it might leave you utterly bewildered, I guarantee you won’t forget it soon.
And we need more of that in the movie theaters. So many projects like this lack the spark and fire required to hold our attention. They rest on borrowed nostalgia, working hard to evoke someone else’s energy rather than finding any of their own. Lucy is sheer Looney Tunes at times, but it also reflects the inescapable passion of its creator, who blends cinema and imagination together in thoroughly unique ways. Besson movies aren’t always masterpieces, but he charges into every project head-on and those times when he breaks through make you glad to be a film lover. Lucy is one of those experiences: goofy, exhilarating, and easily the director’s best work since The Professional.