The Astronaut Farmer is one of those movies that you don't believe for a moment while you're watching it, but you leave with a warm glow. But by the time you've driven home, you realize you've been conned.
It's one of those synthetic-looking soft drinks -- a cinema Slurpy. There's an artificial sugar high. Then a severe letdown.
The Astronaut Farmer is space-age schmaltz. It's a feel-good movie that fakes it.
The Astronaut Farmer is the very hokey story of Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a former NASA-trainee who left the space program when his father committed suicide. Probably from an overdose of saccharine.
Farmer returned to the family ranch in the small town of Story, Texas. Get it? Story, Texas. God, that's not clever. But it's the level of wit in this movie -- a billboard outside town says, "Space Available."
The only irony is that The Astronaut Farmer, which takes place in Texas, was shot in New Mexico, which is a telling sign of the film's displacement.
Farmer builds a rocket in the barn on his ranch and plans to ride it into space. His wife and three children worship this man with a plan. They coo and giggle like a family of chickens.
Farmer, of course, has trouble with the bank, the Department of Home Security, the FBI, NASA, the FAA and the Bureau of Dopiness. But he is not to be dissuaded from his dream. Logic is not his co-pilot.
Farmer's wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) says, "Without the rocket, we're just a dysfunctional family." No, they don't name the rocket Jesus. But the mantra of this ersatz gospel is Farmer's hoary line, "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing." Really?
The most remarkable thing about this unremarkable movie is that it was made by identical twins Mark and Michael Polish. The brothers wrote The Astronaut Farmer, and Michael directed it.
It's a family affair. Two of the Polish clan's daughters (Jasper and Logan) play Farmer's two daughters in the movie. Their characters' names are Stanley (after Kubrick or Livingston?) and, of course, Sunshine (after cliche).
The son (Max Thieriot) is named Shepard (after Alan Shepard). He becomes mission control for his father's flights. In this elastic premise, a second rocket ship quickly can be built, if the first one doesn't make it. And a 15-year old shall lead them.
The Astronaut Farmer tries to be Frank Capra in the 21st century. When an astronaut gets his wings, a dull thud sounds.
Billy Bob Thornton gets the role that Gary Cooper would get if he were alive. Unfortunately Thornton can't use his patentedly bemused look; his character is too gung-ho for that. Thornton's performance makes one yearn for just a moment of Bad Santa's nastiness.
Thornton's Farmer has Andy Griffith's laid-back, down-home nature, but it's wed to Barney Fife's pie-in-the-sky schemes. Farmer probably should be played by the late Don Knotts.
Virginia Madsen smiles, grins, chuckles and twitters in a thankless role as the adoring wife of a dreamer. When she suddenly caws, it seems too abrupt and out of character.
The Astronaut Farmer has a promising cast of actors who often play oddball characters. Besides Thornton, there are Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson and J.K. Simmons, but they're all neutered. The flapjacks on the griddle have more personality. Dern has never been as drab and limited.
The Rovian message of The Astronaut Farmer is "dreaming is good." Buy a Hallmark Greeting Card instead. Everything else in this culture is being dumbed-down, so the makers of The Astronaut Farmer decided to dream. They dumbed-down space.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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