Friday, February 23, 2007
"The Astronaut Farmer" is not a movie for cynics. From a laughable title with a jokey double meaning to a formulaic plot that charges ahead seemingly unaware of how ridiculous it is, this is one bold movie.
The latest strange concoction from the filmmaking duo known as the Polish brothers (Michael writes and directs, Mark writes and produces) is so completely unrealistic that it leaves ridiculousness in the dust and crosses over into the absurd. One thing you can say in its favor is that this combination is not something you often find in a family movie.
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is a farmer. What he really wants to do, however, is resume his scuttled career as an astronaut. He's got an amazingly simple plan, one full of enough down home ingenuity and homespun common sense to make Andy Griffith jealous. For years, he's actually been building a rocket in his barn that will put him into orbit around the Earth. His teenage son will be ready in an old trailer just outside that will serve as Mission Control, communicating with Daddy as he traverses the stars.
The small town atmosphere evokes the 1960s, as does Farmer's spacesuit and rocket design. By no coincidence, that era of American history is marked by an optimistic support for the country's space exploration program. This places the film in a weird kind of quasi-fictional time warp and accentuates its fantastical elements.
A surreal tone is established from the beginning with the opening sequence. Farmer is in his astronaut suit riding a horse across the desert. The sun is just coming up over the orange, sun-baked hills and it could be Mars for all we know. Some of the meticulously composed landscape shots in "The Astronaut Farmer" bring to mind the quiet beauty of "Northfork," a 2003 Polish brothers film that combined sanguine imagery with a quirkier, more contemplative narrative.
Astronaut Farmer **
The best you can say about "The Astronaut Farmer," a modest-budget tribute to 1983's "The Right Stuff," is that it errs with heart. It's a family picture with big names, a big studio behind it and a serious attempt at not being as predictable as it almost is. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a would-be astronaut who has built a rocket in his backyard.
Where "Northfork" lacked in linear action, though, "The Astronaut Farmer" finds the brothers over-compensating with cliched plot devices. I can respect the filmmakers for having the singularity of vision to tell Farmer's story like a rose-colored fable, but it is often maddeningly simple-minded and just plain silly.
Virginia Madsen is Farmer's insanely supportive wife Audie, a woman who approves of her husband's crazy obsession, even when it jeopardizes the family's future. She approves of him taking the kids out of school to help him build his rocket, and when their entire homestead is threatened with foreclosure from his perpetual spending, she still stands by her man with loving eyes. I think I'm in love.
Audie realizes that without Farmer's dream, the family is not the same. Dad realizes that without his family behind him, his dream will never be complete. With so much family love going on, that leaves only the government to step in as the bad guys. Two FBI agents who keep tabs on the family are comic relief, while a recent wave of positive press coverage stymies the rest of the fatcat bureaucrats. Overall, even "the Man" is not enough of an adversary to create any real conflict, and the media darling subplot is a crowd-pleasing crutch that gets old quick.
When things go from bad to worse for Farmer, the plot goes out on a limb that is so weak it immediately snaps from the weight of a full hour of preposterous buildup. There are so many inconsistencies in "The Astronaut Farmer" that simply letting it work depends on how much you are willing to forgive.
This movie flies defiantly and flamboyantly in the face of pessimism and scolds the country's national malaise and tendency to scorn those who are different. If the script could have risen above dull conflict and one-dimensional characters, it would be easier to embrace the boldness that "The Astronaut Farmer" is trying to celebrate.