THE ASTRONAUT FARMERPG
For The Astronaut Farmer, filmmaking siblings Michael and Mark Polish take the elements that have fueled their offbeat independent features (Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot and Northfork) and funnel them into a mainstream studio picture. These elements include a love for the wide-open spaces of the American West, a fascination with eccentric oddballs, and stories that take place in that gray area between fantasy and reality. When applied to a film like Northfork, the result is an art-house curiosity that appeals to certain kinds of film critics and virtually no one else. In the case of The Astronaut Farmer, the Polish brothers (Michael directs, Mark produces, both write the screenplays) are aiming for a broader audience, namely the millions of people who consider Field of Dreams to be the greatest movie ever made.
Like that film, this is the story of an iconic American figure--the farmer and family man--who is driven by a higher calling to achieve something more. But where Ray Kinsella simply built a baseball diamond, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) has constructed a working rocket in his barn. He's not a crackpot amateur, though; once upon a time, Charles was an Air Force officer on track to becoming an astronaut. But when his father killed himself, he had to accept a discharge in order to take over the family ranch. Still, he never abandoned his dream of looking down on Earth from space. Over the years, he's purchased enough second-hand hardware to build his own rocket, which he plans to launch into orbit and circle the globe.
Believe it or not, his wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) and three adorable kids are 100% behind Charles' crazy dream, even if it has put a tremendous strain on their financial resources. Considerably less enthused is the federal government, represented here by squads of men in black suits and sunglasses (a la Northfork) who descend on the Farmer homestead in an effort to ground his rocket before he can show up the country's space program. But like a true-blue Texan, Charles Farmer isn't about to let Feds tell him what he can and can't do. Indeed, Farmer's--and by extension the movie's--general distrust of the government borders on extreme paranoia at times. For example, after his lawyer (played by Tim Blake Nelson) reassures him that the authorities wouldn't have any legal recourse to order his rocket shot out of the sky, Charles replies ominously, "I don't know. They're pretty good at killing people with dreams."
Ever since Field of Dreams was officially enshrined as a modern classic, numerous filmmakers have attempted to replicate its peculiar brand of magical realism. What they often discover is that it's much harder than it looks. For starters, the hero of your film has to have a goal that's believable enough to support the wild flights of fancy that come later. It's fairly easy to accept a farmer building a baseball field in his backyard. In contrast, the Polish brothers are asking the audience to suspend an enormous amount of disbelief right up front by presenting them with a rancher who has already put together an entire freakin' rocket. And where Ray was an instantly relatable character, it's not always easy for us to believe in good ol' Charlie, because of his somewhat prickly personality and certain plot developments. A number of narrative gaps can be spotted throughout the film and the last half-hour contains a convenient deus ex machina that strains the story's credibility almost beyond the breaking point.
And yet for all these flaws, The Astronaut Farmer has a scrappy charm that's hard to completely resist. It's been a while since a film has attempted to depict outer space as a place of wonder. All too often, Hollywood chooses to dwell on its dangers: giant asteroids, face-hugging aliens and the like. (It doesn't help that the biggest headline NASA has generated recently was for that bizarre astronaut love triangle.) Although set in contemporary America, the Polish brothers hearken back to the country's mood in the '50s and '60s, when space could be described as "the final frontier" without a trace of irony. Younger viewers who perk up at the very mention of the word "rocket ship" will probably have no trouble identifying with Farmer's dream. Their parents, meanwhile, will be glad to hear that the PG-rated film depicts a family that, while far from ordinary, is always functional and loving. If The Astronaut Farmer ultimately doesn't soar into the heavens, it at least achieves liftoff.