Astronaut Farmer, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/23/07 00:30:08

"Space Oddity"
5 stars (Awesome)

“The Astronaut Farmer” is the fourth film from Mark and Michael Polish, twin brothers whose previous works were such fascinating indie gems as “Twin Falls Idaho” (in which they played Siamese twins residing in a run-down hotel), “Jackpot” (a road movie that followed the life of an itinerant karaoke singer) and “Northfork” (a strange story that intertwines the evacuation of a small Montana town to make way for a dam, a priest trying to find a family for a sickly child and a group of angels looking for a missing comrade). Here, they are working within the confines of a major studio (Warner Brothers) and while this has led to some cosmetic changes (bigger-name stars, elaborate special effects and a promotional budget hefty enough to actually allow for advertising on television), the larger scale doesn’t seem to have affected their approach to filmmaking in the way that it has with other filmmakers in the past. In fact, “The Astronaut Farmer” is not only their quirkiest work to date, it is arguably their best as well.

Right from the start, you can tell that you are in for something off the beaten path thanks to an opening shot that deftly fuses together two of the most potent symbols of the American ideal imaginable–an astronaut riding a horse like a true space cowboy. The man in question is Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a former NASA astronaut who was forced to leave the program and take over the family farm after the death of his father. While his NASA career may have died with that decision, his dreams certainly didn’t and he has spent the last few years building a rocket ship in the barn out back with the plan of launching himself into orbit with the help of wife Audie (Virginia Madsen), teen son Shepard and young daughters Sunshine and Stanley. However, while the construction of the rocket has gone largely unnoticed in the small town of Story, Texas, Farmer’s attempt to purchase the 10,000 pounds of high-grade fuel required to actually launch himself into space catches the attention of the government and reps from the CIA, FBI, FAA and the military swarm onto the farm on the assumption that he might be a terrorist.

When they discover his actual plan, they are even more aghast and inform him that he cannot possibly launch himself into space. After pointing out that a.) yes he can and b.) he filed all the appropriate paperwork (which was apparently discarded as the work of a kook), Farmer ignores their demands and takes his case to the media, which makes him an instant sensation. Eventually, NASA sends in an old family friend (Bruce Willis in an unbilled cameo) who admires what Farmer has done and who bluntly tells him that the powers-that-be will never let him take off. He even goes so far as to offer Farmer a seat on the next shuttle launch if he will agree to dismantle the rocket. Of course, Farmer refuses and continues to fight for his dreams. That is the easy part–the difficulty comes when Audie discovers just how much financial risk he has put the family in order to pursue a dream that literally may never get off the ground.

As “The Astronaut Farmer” unfolded, it occurred to me that I had no idea as to where the story was going or how it would be resolved. After seeing countless movies–some good (“Music and Lyrics”) and most bad (most everything else currently in release)–in which virtually every plot development can be anticipated before the opening credits have finished, I relished the mystery of not knowing what was coming up next. It was also a relief to discover the virtual absence of the cliches that one might ordinarily expect to see in a story like this. Yes, Charlie is an inspirational dreamer and a noble family man but we also see that he is short with those who don’t share his dream, irresponsible in the way that he deceives his family about the cost of his dream and there is also the unspoken suggestion that he might actually be a little nuts after all. Audie is the loyal and faithful wife but when she discovers that there is no money in the bank, she explodes with righteous and perfectly understandable anger. Even the various government types are, for the most part, painted as more than one-dimensional stooges or flat-out meanies–they are simply guys who are doing their jobs instead of actively trying to destroy Farmer. (There is a funny bit referencing how such characters usually act in a film when a Fed’s cell phone goes off and his ring tone is the Imperial March from “Star Wars.”)

As before, they have taken a plot conceit that could have been the set-up for a dumb comedy and have instead invested it with enough warmth and intelligence so that you actually do care if Farmer gets his rocket off the ground or not. And while the film is often very funny, the laughs emerge from the characters instead of just being shoehorned in for the sake of a cheap gag or two. At the same time, the film is fascinating in the way that it can simultaneously be read as a straightforward story of a man and his rocket or as a metaphor for the occasionally insane lengths that people go through to achieve their dreams. For example, one could easily read the film as a parable for their past adventures in the world of independent filmmaking in which they are farmer, the rocket is a stand-in for their movies and the big-studio apparatus of Hollywood and its various executives can be read in the various government officials who can’t understand why someone would want to work outside the system instead of becoming just another cog in the machine. (If you read the film like this, there is a slyly ironic joke in that the offer for Farmer to join a shuttle flight–the NASA equivalent of a soulless bit of studio product–is conveyed by one of the biggest movie stars in the world.) That said, the Polishes don’t hit you over the head with the symbolism too hard and if you just want to read it at its most basic level, it works just as well that way.

Another key to the success of the film is the spot-on casting throughout. As Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton inhabits the role so perfectly that I simply cannot think of another actor who could even come close to pulling off the combination of sweetness and benign nuttiness that he brings to the part. At first, it might seem kind of disappointing to discover that Virginia Madsen is once again using her post-“Sideways” career bounce to play yet another housewife (after the dismal likes of “Firewall” and “The Number 23") but at least this one offers her a chance to do something other than stand by the sidelines while the story goes on without her. Her scenes with Thornton have an air of authenticity about them that you don’t often see in on-screen married couples–they create the sense that we are seeing two people who have actually created a life and family together instead of two actors who just met for the first time earlier that day. There are also some nice supporting turns from the likes of Bruce Dern (as Farmer’s admiring father-in-law), Jon Gries (a Polish Brothers regular who teams up with Mark Polish as a pair of quirky Feds). Although Bruce Willis is only in the film for a few minutes and receives no billing, his work is strong and sure and serves as a reminder that he has been carving out an interesting side career as a supporting player in such films as “Pulp Fiction,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Billy Bathgate” and “Fast Food Nation”–outside of Bill Murray, I can’t think of another current A-list player who has been doing this sort of thing on a regular basis and it may well be what he winds up being remembered for once the explosion-filled junk falls by the wayside.

“The Astronaut Farmer” may not be the damndest thing you ever saw, to borrow one of the tag lines used to describe Robert Altman’s “Nashville” many years ago, but it comes closer to deserving that description than any other recent film that springs to mind. To hear the premise, it sounds like a simple family film–one of those live-action things that Disney used to crank out in the 60's and 70's when the animation business was in decline–and to a certain extent, that is exactly what it is. At the same time, it is also a wise, weird and wonderful indie film that is chock-full of quirky characters, intriguing situations and sly social satire. The result is the first must-see film of 2007 (talk about damning with faint praise) and the first film that I can recall since David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that average families and hipsters can potentially embrace and enjoy in equal measure.

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