The Reeler


February 22, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob's wannabe space cadet family drama keeps it light and pleasant

If Billy Bob Thornton was Dakota Fanning and his rocket was a horse, then The Astronaut Farmer would be Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. They are both heartstring tuggers about eccentric outsiders, belittled and betrayed by a system that doesn't want them to succeed, who become consumed by seemingly impossible dreams that threaten to destroy their dysfunctional families and finances. The key difference: Dakota Fanning is a child who acts like an adult, while Billy Bob (as rancher, father, husband,and dude who wants to shoot his ass into orbit, Charlie Farmer) is a man who acts like a child. While it's easy to root for the former, the latter presents some problems.

Charlie has a good life, tending to his cattle and his three kids with wife Audie (Virginia Madsen), but his heart remains in space; the clear blue skies of his Texas home play a crucial role in the visual compositions, ever beckoning him upward. Family issues forced Charlie out of NASA years ago, and in the intervening years he's taken over his father's ranch, raised his family and slowly pieced together his own ballistic missile with junk he found in rocket graveyards. Charlie is a month away from launch when the one-two punch of financial troubles and governmental intrusion threaten to ground his dream permanently.

A child should have dreams and follow them wherever he or she can. If parents want to blow their future to stake their tot's hopes, as Kurt Russell and Elisabeth Shue's characters do in Dreamer, then that's their choice. Children should have their fantasies, right? But when a parent nearly loses his home, his financial security, and his life all for the sake of some glorious boondoggle, as Charlie Farmer does, it strikes me as irresponsible, and that takes some of the fun out of all the heartwarming. When Charlie wavers, Audie inexplicably eggs him on: the kids need to believe in their father, she insists. But isn't having a living, breathing daddy more important than believing in daddy?

Maybe children would chose differently, and they are clearly the target audience of The Astronaut Farmer, just as they were for Dreamer. They won't be bothered by the way the filmmakers never explain where Charlie's dream came from (because most kids want to be astronauts too, and they don't particularly know why either), or how Charlie's relationship with his son Shepard (Max Thierot) is underwritten, or that the film's superb supporting cast (including Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Jon Gries, Bruce Dern and Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo) are mostly wasted in their brief appearances. They'll be drawn to Charlie's innocence, his struggle and his willingness to wear a spacesuit to show-and-tell at his kids' school.

The Astronaut Farmer is written and directed by filmmaking brothers Michael and Mark Polish, and while they have made films about families before (notably the conjoined twin drama Twin Falls, Idaho), they have never made a "family film." The Polish brothers occasionally address their adult audience with commentary on celebrity culture and product placement, but for the most part things are kept simple: for every problem the characters solve themselves, another is solved for them by a convenient twist of luck or plot. And so The Astronaut Farmer remains light and pleasant, like a warm summer day in the country or good afternoon nap.

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