The Astronaut Farmer

The Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob Thornton wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

(Warner Brothers) Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Dern, Max Theriot, Mark Polish, Jon Gries, Bruce Willis. Directed by Michael Polish

For as long as he could remember, Charlie Farmer (Thornton) wanted to be an astronaut. The son of a Texas rancher, he joined the Air Force and became a test pilot, the better to join the space program, which he did. After his dad’s suicide, however, Charlie left the program to take care of his family, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.

Now, Charlie Farmer is building a rocket in his barn. His kids – including son Shepherd (Theriot) are behind him, his beautiful wife Audie (Madsen) supports him, even as she works as a waitress in a diner to help make ends meet. Even his father-in-law (Dern) respects him. Most of the rest of the people in town think he’s a whacko.

Unfortunately, the feds get wind of his scheme when he tries to buy 10,000 square pounds of rocket fuel and decide to shut down this amateur Buck Rogers. The bank, to whom Charlie has already fallen terribly behind in mortgage payments, has initiated foreclosure proceedings. Charlie is this close to losing everything. Still, he has his family dreaming together – and that in itself is a very powerful thing.

There can be some extreme corniness at times, with emphasis on family unity and pursuing dreams nearly at the expense of all else. You can see why it didn’t resonate with a younger audience, a virtual kiss of death at the box office today. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. It has all the elements of a family movie, but the character exposition might be a bit too much for younger audiences, who could conceivably be bored.

There are some moments that will wake you up, like most of the launch sequence scenes. Some nice visuals too, as early on Billy Bob in full spacesuit regalia chases a stray calf while riding a horse. Talk about cowboys and aliens.

Thornton excels at these kinds of roles, the low-key salt of the earth family man, and he doesn’t get to play them too often. He carries himself with great dignity, but loses his cool just often enough to put you a little bit on edge around him. Madsen as his long-suffering wife continues to be impressive with almost every role she plays. Willis, in an uncredited turn, plays an old friend of Charlie’s who made it on into “the program” after Charlie dropped out, and went on to fly the space shuttle.

I liked the underlying current of the role of civilians in space. I believe that you will start to see more civilians playing larger roles in future space missions especially as the commercial possibilities of space become more lucrative.

All that aside, I found this to be a charming movie that I became engrossed with. Occasionally, the writers strained credulity a bit – they painted themselves into a few corners and used some shall we say, novel approaches of getting out of them. However, those moments are few and far between. I was completely taken with Charlie Farmer’s story, and I think a lot more people will be too, once they give it a chance. For the record, the DVD is a little difficult to find in stores, but it is available generally on premium cable and video-on-demand services.

WHY RENT THIS: Unexpectedly charming. Low-key without being sleep-inducing. Message is one we rarely hear these days outside of the occasional Disney movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Paints itself into corners plot-wise and doesn’t resolve every challenge in a satisfying manner.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little salty language and some perilous situations but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Just as Farmer is about to launc h, Shepard says “Cleared for launch at zero hour, 9am” in an homage to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”



TOMORROW: Australia