The Astronaut Farmer taught me that, according to the Polish brothers, I am a dream-crushing non-believer. And all things considered, I am just fine with that.
The overly cutesy name refers to a man who is both a farmer and named Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton
), a rancher in a small Texas town who never gave up his youthful dreams of becoming an astronaut, and so continues pursuing them in his spare time. Out in his barn, he's spent years building a rocket out of salvaged parts in order to finally get himself into outer space. Farmer's entire family revolves around his dream: His 15-year-old son runs mission control, his adorable little girls play moon games, and his family ranch is mortgaged to the hilt to pay for it. Article continues below
He is nearing his launch date when things take a turn for poor Farmer: The bank wants to foreclose on his house, his wife (Virginia Madsen
) is nearing the end of her rope and her patience, and his efforts to buy 50,000 pounds of high-grade rocket fuel mean the Department of Homeland Security is quite concerned that he's a potential terrorist. Suddenly, there's media hoopla all around rural Texas as the FAA is holding hearings to try to ground Farmer, and the 24-hour news networks are parked out front bringing nationwide support.
As a fairy tale, The Astronaut Farmer works on a lot of levels. The Polish brothers -- screenwriter Mark and writer/director Michael
-- have kept a lot of the whimsy and eccentricities from their earlier films (Northfork, Jackpot), but have veered away from their usual depressing and downtrodden feel. The CGI may leave a little to be desired, but the film hits all the right visual cues for a modern-day fable. Sure, there's the barren realism, but there is also the cheeky entertainment of a guy in a metallic space suit herding a wayward calf back to the flock.
But as an uplifting underdog tale, it just leaves something to be desired. Call me curmudgeonly, but while Farmer's unwavering faith can be inspiring, he is also foolish and obsessive. Don't ask how Farmer's launch is supposed to get the family out of their financial hole. His dream won't be shaken by pesky logic. And that's even leaving off how preposterously bad the idea of a do-it-yourself space mission is. NASA has enough difficulty with the delicacies of space travel, with all its money and people and experience, but we're supposed to believe that an earth orbit, planned with nothing more than a guy with a bachelor's degree, some elbow grease, and a dream, running "mission control" out of a trailer in his backyard, is anything but a death wish? It's hard to be uplifted when you are staunchly on the side of the doubters.
Even if they are not quite space-mission caliber, The Astronaut Farmer manages a few feats that make it worthwhile, not the least of which is that it is a lovely family film that is neither simplistic nor sappy. It also gathers up a charming list of well-known character actors; in addition to Thornton, Madsen, and Polish lucky charm Jon Gries (who plays a grouchy FBI agent), the supporting cast includes Bruce Dern
, Tim Blake Nelson
, and a cameo by Bruce Willis
. All are entertaining actors with solidly wry comic delivery, which suits the film's down-home humor.
Against-all-odds movies are becoming a genre all of their own, treating these folks who are willing to literally sacrifice everything for the sake of their dreams as the ultimate epic hero. And it can be uplifting, but The Astronaut Farmer dances an awful lot on that line with a hero that might actually be better off having a different dream -- one that won't kill him, for instance, or leave his family without a home. It's a good thing that it's a sweet fairy tale, because in the real world, it's a narrative fool's errand.