In a time of pop-culture-happy, snarky entertainment that masks any message behind a preening above-it-all attitude, “The Astronaut Farmer” is a welcome relief.
Directed by Michael Polish from a screenplay written by Polish and his brother, Mark, “The Astronaut Farmer” is one of the most recent corny films. But that is its primary charm.
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is a man with a dream: an outlandish and improbable dream, but a dream nonetheless. Compromising his aspirations after the death of his rancher father, Farmer achieves the American Dream. He has three wonderful kids, a saintly wife (Virginia Madsen) and a stable job in livestock. Despite all this, Farmer feels compelled to achieve his lifelong goal of flying into outer space. The only logical conclusion is that he builds a makeshift rocket in his barn, hiding it from the government.
As soon as he tries to buy a large supply of fuel, the Federal Aviation Administration takes notice and tries to bully him out of flying the rocket. With the help of his blindly devoted family, Farmer overcomes financial and societal obstacles to pursue his dubious dream.
If this sounds like a fairy tale, it is. There is a decidedly retro feel to this film (captured perfectly by cinematographer M. David Mullen). Though set in 2007, it might as well be 1957. Man’s ultimate pursuit of the mysteries of space has not changed in the eyes of Farmer and his family.
There is never any doubt where the film is going, and there is never any real threat to the characters (the FBI comes across as being as threatening as the local 4-H club). Scenes move too quickly and don’t allow for any dramatic momentum to build.
It is a shame that Farmer’s dream remains so literal-minded. In the hands of such a talented actor like Thornton, the audience swallows the most didactic of inspiring dialogue. However, Farmer’s obsession with space is too unclear to make the climactic scenes of any consequence. Viewers are always aware of his dreams but not why they matter. In a film as sweetly silly as this, subtleties like that are hard to digest.
While the opening scenes of “The Astronaut Farmer” are the most memorable, these shots have an intangibly magical quality to them: an aura of mystery that the rest of this inconsequential, entertaining, warm film cannot hold on to.
“The Astronaut Farmer” was written by Michael and Mark Polish and directed by Michael Polish.
“The Astronaut Farmer” received three out of four stars.