Nuts on Clark

The Astronaut Farmer (2006; Rated Rated PG)

The Astronaut Farmer

“ Nutty, but it works.”

-Richard Roeper


The Astronaut Farmer

(2006; PG)

In theaters:
Sunday, 15 October 2006

Summary: A NASA astronaut (Thornton), forced to retire years earlier so he could save his family farm, has never give up his dream of space travel and looks to build his own rocket, despite the government's threats to stop him.

Adventure, Drama

Michael Polish

Billy Bob Thornton

Imagine "Field of Dreams" with a rocket ship. Well, you don't have to imagine it, because that's pretty much the deal with "The Astronaut Farmer," one of the loopiest inspirational-dreamer movies you'll ever see.

This is the kind of film where you're watching some strange madness transpiring on screen and you're thinking, "I'll bet this is a dream sequence" -- only it's not. It's just more cheery weirdness.

I mean, we're talking about a movie that opens with Billy Bob Thornton riding a horse on his sprawling Texas ranch while wearing a full astronaut's outfit, like a 7-year-old who wants to keep wearing his Halloween costume in the first few days of November. They're telling us from the start that either we can fly along with 'em or we can stay on the ground and abort our mission of taking this film seriously. Either way, they're off and running.

Perhaps recognizing that the material is brazen enough, Thornton makes the wise choice to play it straight and sincere as a middle- aged farmer named Charlie Farmer (good thing his chosen profession isn't proctology), who has a beautiful, supportive wife. She's played by Virginia Madsen, who is framed and lit as if she's the gorgeous mom in an orange juice commercial. Madsen has essentially the same role Amy Madigan played in "Field of Dreams."

Charlie also has two ever-giggling little daughters who think their dad is more magical than Santa Claus, and a teenage son who reveres his father in a way that teenage sons rarely do in movies, or for that matter, in real life.

And have I mentioned the wild-haired Bruce Dern as Charlie's father-in-law, who shows up occasionally to tell Charlie he's the greatest dad in the universe? (Charlie's kinda like George Bailey, post-hallucination.)

Just about everybody in town loves Charlie, too, even though there's a better than 50-50 chance Charlie is clinically insane.

You see, he's got a yearning in his heart and a rocket in the barn. That's not some NC-17 euphemism; it's the literal truth.

Ever since Charlie had to give up his goal of becoming an astronaut so he could return to the farm after his dad committed suicide, he has dreamed of blasting off to outer space. He's hell- bent on making that dream come true, even if it means losing the farm and his family as he spends every penny he has on building a full-sized, functional rocket in the barn -- and his own mission control as well, which will of course be manned by his 15-year-old son.

This is not a movie that takes time to explain how Charlie, apparently working on his own with a blowtorch and lot of trips to Home Depot, is able to construct a massive ship that would surely cost millions of dollars and would require the expertise of dozens of technicians with multiple degrees in rocket science and other fields of specialty.

This is a movie that features Bruce Willis, the new King of All- Star Cameos, as a space shuttle commander who shows up at Charlie's farm one day, downs a few beers, tells Charlie he's crazy and then laughs with cartoonishly wild glee at the sheer heart and moxie of the astronaut farmer.

You've also got the Federal Aviation Administration breathing down Charlie's neck, the worldwide media turning him into a celebrity, and lots of speeches about how a man is nothing if he doesn't have dreams. Sometimes it's played for laughs, sometimes it's played for sentiment, sometimes it's just so loopy I couldn't help chortling.

(Spoiler warning ahead!) The best part is when circumstances unwind in such a fashion that Charlie nearly dies and the rocket is destroyed -- and with the help of his family, who apparently are collectively crazier than he is, Charlie makes the decision to build and launch a second rocket.

At that point, he's officially more productive than NASA in its entirety. You'd think they'd just hire the guy and let him build rockets. They could lay off about a thousand employees and save a few bucks.

Oddly enough, this is probably only Thornton's second- most implausible space-travel movie. After all, he also appeared in "Armageddon." Thornton stars in a lot of junky movies and somehow elevates them to at least watchable junk. He has a strangely compelling presence.

Madsen probably spent about three minutes prepping for her role as the dutiful wife. That's not a knock on her; it's just an assessment of the role. She could do this sort of thing in her sleep.

The kids are all good, Willis has some nice moments, and the always-welcome character actor J.K. Simmons (he's the cigar- chomping blowhard newspaper editor in the "Spider-Man" movies) is big fun as the FAA chief who tries to ground Charlie and his rocket ship.

"The Astronaut Farmer" is written by brothers Michael and Mark Polish and directed by Michael. They could be cinematic cousins to the Coen brothers. I can't wait to see what they'll come up with next. Maybe it'll be a movie about a couple of brothers who somehow manage to get a movie made about a farmer who builds his own rocket ship.

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