A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER jj

2007, PG, 105 mins.

Charlie Farmer: Billy Bob Thornton / Audrey Farmer: Virginia Madsen / Hal: Bruce Dern / Jacobson: J.K. Simmons

Directed by Michael Polish /  Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish

“My son is perfectly capable of sending his father into space.”

- Billy Bob Thornton from THE ASTRONAUT FARMER

I have always been a fan of Gary Larson’s THE FAR SIDE newspaper cartoon strips.  They had a sort of exuberant, wickedly droll, and zany outlandishness to them.  You kind of laughed at their sheer silliness. 

They took many pre-conceived ideas and concepts, rigidly tipped them upside down on their heads, and held them up for riotous laughs.  My favourites include one that showed God rubbing what appears to be silly putty with the caption “GOD MAKES SNAKES” (his speech balloon says, “Gosh, these things are easy!”).  I also appreciated one that showed the crew of the Starship Enterprise seeing a floating head on their view screen with the caption “Kirk and the Enterprise are shocked when they encounter the floating visage of Zsa Zsa Gabor.” 

The poster for THE ASTRONAUT FARMER kind of reminded me of the spirit of Larson’s comic strips…at least in terms of overall tonality.  It displays a man in a space suit riding a horse in front of his farm.  If it was a FAR SIDE comic its caption could have easily stated "Buzz Aldrin feebly attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream by launching himself into space via his horse."

Even the story for the film could have easily been the fixture of one of his daily strips.  It sure is one hum-dinger of a narrative.  It is one thing for a father to engage in a bit of middle aged soul searching by wanting to recapture past glory by gunning for and ultimately achieving a lifelong dream.  Some men have modest aims.  I know of one friend whose father desperately yearned to take up sky diving and – with the support of his wife and kids – he finally saw his wishes taken to successful fruition. 

The father/husband figure in THE ASTRONAUT FARMER has much loftier aims.  He simply wants to convert his barn into a missile silo, build a rocket, mortgage his house and farm six times over to the point of absolute bankruptcy, risk financial ruin for his wife and kids, and fly himself into outer space.

Oooookay.

I have never seen such a crazy cinematic family in my relative young filmgoing life.  And I do mean crazy in the literal sense.  Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), the film’s main character, most certainly would have to be nuttier than a fruitcake.  He was once a college graduate in aerospace engineering who dreamed of flight all his life.  He trained on experimental fighter aircrafts, but really set his hopes for becoming an astronaut during the space race.  Due to an unforeseen personal setback, he was forced to resign from NASA and instead became a lonely rancher.  His heart is simply not in it.  Like another film farmer, Ray Kinsella from FIELD OF DREAMS, Charlie really becomes driven by his obsessions.  No, he does not plough through hundreds of valuable acres of corn crop to erect a baseball field because the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson told him to do so.  No sir.  In Charlie’s case, he builds a rocket and hopes to fly into outer space.

Much like Kevin Costner in DREAMS, Charlie has – pardon the pun – a family of such astronomical patience, understanding, and commitment.  Everyone in the town thinks Charlie is an utter lunatic that has thrown common sense into the wind…and could ya blame them?   For most of his adult life he has slaved away at building his space vessel for what he hopes is his first star trek.  He has also spent the literal farm at making his rocket.  Every last penny that his family has in their tight pockets has been put into his dream.  Early in the film the bank’s loan manager instructs him that if he does not give up his silly, infantile plan, then he will loose his farm.  Charlie, being a plucky optimist, sees it otherwise.  I mean, what’s to worry about?  He’s only on his sixth mortgage, and who cares about sending the two kids off to college.  Forget about their futures!

His family goes to remarkable levels to support him, even in the midst of a town that thinks him to be as stupid as Kinsella for putting up a baseball field in his corn crop for no apparent reason.  His wife, Audrey (played in yet another supportive wife role by Virginia Madsen, playing the same variation of this character in recent films like FIREWALL and THE NUMBER 23) thinks highly of her husband and supports him through thick and thin.  Not once does she call the doctor to arrange for Charlie to be sent to the psychiatric ward in a straight jacket, despite when the evidence seems to point to the fact that Charlie just may be clinically insane.  Maybe she thinks it's just a phase he’s going through, but when he reveals to her that he is trying to make a bid for buying several tons of premium grade fuel for his rocket, she then starts to see things differently.

Charlie’s kids are idealistic to the point of being a Capraesque wet dream.  They also love dear old dad and never seem to question his sanity or integrity.  His oldest child, Shepherd (Max Thieriot) seems like a bright kid with an affinity to science and math.  He sort of places his dad on a peculiar pedestal of hero worship, maybe because his dad wants him to be in charge of mission control.  Call me crazy, but last I checked, NASA has never had any mission controllers who have just entered puberty.  But – gosh darnit – if I was Charlie's adolescent son and I was asked to be his number two for his flight to space, I would think it was the coolest thing ever.

Rightfully, the FAA gets wind of Charlie’s inane plan and thinks it's pure hogwash.  However, when they and the FBI start to dig further and notice that – holy cow – this guy is looking to buy thousands of pounds of rocket fuel, they start to take him seriously.  They first send FBI stooges to his ranch to investigate him, perhaps to see if he is making a WMD on American soil.  Charlie, with his aw, shucks gumshum and lighthearted spirit, laughs off their concerns.  At one point he tells them at a hearing, “If I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it.”  Check mate for Charles!

Yes, no inspirational film about a down-on-his luck rancher that wants to spend his family’s collective assets to build a rocket to go to outer space would not be complete without a formal hearing of some kind.  These types of movie hearings almost could be called “Patch Adam Formals”, named after ridiculous film of the same name.  You know, the type of hearing where the "hero" of the film has to explain his actions and their validity to a group of administrative heads that are woefully painted as villains for challenging the hero’s shaky motives.  It always kind of rubs me the wrong way when films like this take characters that have every right in the world to oppose the so-called hero’s choices and make them look like heels.  Usually, their opposition makes perfect sense, but in a movie they are dastardly, unscrupulous, and uncaring A-holes because – for cripe’s sake – they are standing in front of the hero’s dreams.  For crying out loud, maybe then don't want him to blow himself up.

J.K. Simmons is cast as the FAA head and – at seemingly every moment – he tells Charlie and the public that there are laws that prohibit citizens from making rockets and going to space.  Furthermore, NASA has people that have trained for years and have experience to go into space.  But, c’mon, Charlie has a dream and they are stepping on it.  In a speech he gives near the end of the hearing, Charlie steps up to the board and in pure, Patch Adams-ian fashion, says that – yeah – there are laws, but how can you stop individualism and one man’s lifelong dream of going to space?  Well, the board tells him that they will make up their mind in 60 days.  Oh no, but Charlie’s farm will go into foreclosure in 30!!  Geez, good thing Charlie was not wanting to launch his ship into space in 30 days to dock with a dangerous asteroid that was on a collision course with earth.  Actually, wait a tick, Thornton had his hand already in a film like that called ARMAGEDDON.

There are even other moments of sheer, unbridled incredulity that made me laugh.  Bruce Willis (oddly enough, in an uncredited cameo) shows up in the film as a former shuttle pilot that comes to Charlie’s farm to find out what the hell he’s really up to.  Yet, when Charlie takes him to his barn and shows him the rocket, Willis stares in complete awe and giggles like a schoolgirl and the sight.  Does he immediately call the Feds to report on this nut job, or does he try to drag Charlie away to the Lonnie bin?  No.  After a few beers and talking with Charlie, he kind of develops some strong respect for his limitless drive.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh. 

Even wackier is one sly moment when J.K. Simmons quietly tells Charlie that he will never fly his rocket because – if he did – then he would have the collective arsenal of the US government pointed straight at his farm.  Charlie’s lawyer said that the FAA head was bluffing…but was he?  Last, but not least, the film journeys towards a third act that shows the hero see terrible defeat and then achieve ultimate victory in a manner that will truly have audience members want to not only admit Charlie, but his entire family to the psyche ward.

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER is one the strangest films that I have seen.  On one level, is sort of typical of most inspirational films by following its conventions to the letter though and through.  It has the driven hero, a family that supports him no matter what, and a group that wants to boycott his dreams, only to be overcome in the end by the hero.  In this way, the film is hopelessly predictable.  I guess the overall storyline is kind of fresh, in a warped, reality defying kind of way, and it sort of combines ROCKY with FIELD OF DREAMS with sprinkles of Capra put in for good measure.  You most certainly have to suspend your disbelief while watching a film like this, but the premise of it makes it very, very difficult to do so.  I guess there is too much dark irony in THE ASTRONAUT FARMER.  Sure, Charlie is a man of perseverance and guileless courage and drive, but in the end, he’s inescapably a nutcase.  The fact that his family is also so universally accepting of his ridiculous scheme is even tougher to swallow.

If anything, the film is marginally redeemed by a decent performance by Billy Bob Thornton, who thankfully underplays the role to not accentuate the sheer absurdity of it.  It’s also nice to see the actor play a nice and affable character after a string of hit-or-miss films where he plays an amoral S.O.B. (like in SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, BAD NEWS BEARS, and BAD SANTA).  His effortless charm and low-key appeal hear help to establish our willingness to root him on, even when his ultimate quest is beyond realistic.  Madsen does what she can with the perfunctory wife role when she supports her husband, has the obligatory spats with him, becomes emotionally distant, and then later comes and stands by her man.  J.K. Simmons is characteristically vile and seedy in his performance.

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER emerges as 2007’s most absurdist of films.  It has a quirky and light-hearted appeal in its story of a farmer that dreams of building a rocket to journey to the stars, and its allegory on the spirit of individual dreams is noble.  The film has a nice performance by Billy Bob Thornton and some lovely production values (the cinematography has a sun drenched, luminous kind bucolic beauty in many scenes).  However, the film is yet another in a long line of predictable formula films that veers heavily into clichés and seriously suffers from an overall lack of credibility.  I guess I am willing to buy into a fairy tale of a farmer that makes a ball diamond in his cornfield so that the ghost of MLB’s past can come to play.  Really…I do.  But, there is just something about a man that wants to put his family into bankruptcy and provoke the Federal Government into attacking him by building a rocket in his barn so he can launch himself into space that’s…well…insane.  There is nothing wrong with having a dream, but what if it can lead to your own demise and destruction?  What’s the point?  Alas, in films like this its characters worship the so-called hero when they should be forcing him against his will to get therapy. 

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