"The Astronaut Farmer" is a loony misfire of a movie with a garbled message and a target audience that is yet to be determined. Although it has a PG rating and a studio representative before the screening described it as a "great family film," my rooted suspicion is that few kids will care about a slow-paced, old-fashioned drama about a guy going through a mid-life crisis. As for adult audiences, they will more clearly see it for what it is: a well-meaning but insufferably corny yarn with a plot that goes far and beyond one's suspension of disbelief.
Billy Bob Thornton has been playing so many acid-tongued sleazes in recent years (i.e. 2003's "Bad Santa
," 2005's "Bad News Bears
," 2006's "School for Scoundrels
") that his full capabilities and range as an actor were beginning to get overshadowed by typecasting. Thornton gets to try something different as Charles Farmer, a down-on-his-luck family man with a Texas ranch that is about to be foreclosed. Once a military man trained as an astronaut before his discharge, Charles has finally begun building an actual rocket in his barn that he hopes will blast him off into space. As wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) stands by him and kids Shepard (Max Thieriot), Stanley (Jasper Polish) and Sunshine (Logan Polish) are pulled out of school to help him put the finishing touches on the spacecraft, Charles becomes the controversial talk of the country when the media closes in. Does Charles logistically have a shot at making this work, or is it but a foolish and potentially dangerous pipe dream?
Written and directed by Michael Polish and co-written by brother Mark Polish (1999's "Twin Falls Idaho
"), "The Astronaut Farmer" is an oddity that has the support of a major studio but virtually no commercially viable prospects. This observation has zilch to do with the film's quality, mind you, but bears mentioning because it is such an out-of-touch oddity. At heart, the movie wants to spread the quaint age-old advice to follow your dream and never give up. In reality, it is the tale of a man whose delusional train of thought masks a deep depression and suicidal impulses. Charles is borderline-psychotic, tossing bricks through bank windows when he doesn't get his way, telling his children they no longer have to go to school while the rocket is being built, and risking the financial well-being of his family for self-absorbed reasons. When Audrey reads a newspaper article that calls them a family of cult members, her reaction is one of anger and distress. The viewer, meanwhile, nods his or her head in agreement with the journalist.
The actors make a go of the trite material, but it's a pretty fruitless conquest. Billy Bob Thornton's Charles is supposed to be an underdog to cheer on, but he is written as so off-balance that the only thing to do is worry about his mental state. Oddly, a big deal is made at first about Charles' radical decision to temporarily yank his kids out of the school system, his reasoning being that they will be able to learn more about science from him, but there is nary a scene following this discussion where he is shown teaching his children anything.
Virginia Madsen (2006's "Firewall
"), destined to play ever-patient wife roles for all of eternity now that she is an Oscar nominee, pulls off the film's only dramatically potent moments. Her Audrey does all she can to hold her family together, but loses faith when it comes to her attention that Charles hasn't been totally honest with her. Madsen's reaction to this knowledge of mistruth rings true, and is about the only thing that does. As Audrey's loving father Hal, Bruce Dern (2003's "Monster
") is handed a lot of the most egregious stuff to perform, including a heart-to-heart with Charles that ridiculously occurs directly before a certain plot development that can be spotted coming a mile away. Last but not least, Max Thieriot (2005's "The Pacifier
") is better than his wasted role as 15-year-old son Shepard requires him to be.
By the time Charles is being counted down for takeoffthrough a series of events, he has had to start from scratch in building a spacecraft that apparently takes him a matter of few weeks to complete"The Astronaut Farmer" has long ago toppled over into the abyss of really, really crummy movie ideas. Inspiring bad laughs and eye rolls rather than honest inspiration, the film is set in the real world but is so foreign to real life that it seems to be taking place on another planet. The Polish Brothers were no doubt sincere when they took on this project; they would have benefited, however, had someone clued them in early on about how ridiculous and unsatisfying the whole thing would be when put to film.