28 February 2007 | Buddy-51
I've heard of "suspension of disbelief" before, but this is ridiculous! "The Astronaut Farmer" features one of the loopiest, looniest premises ever to grace a mainstream American movie. A middle-aged rancher named Farmer (you know a movie's heading into seriously pretentious waters when it starts dispensing heavily allegorical names to its characters), has decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of flying into outer space. To this end, he has single-handedly constructed a fully functioning rocket that, in the real world, would require an army of NASA engineers and millions of dollars in government money to put together. Heck, for sheer grandiosity and technological ingenuity, Farmer's homemade rocket makes Ray Kinsella's backyard baseball stadium look like erector-set kids' stuff in comparison.
In a film shamelessly bucking for the "feel-good movie of the year" stamp-of-approval, Farmer is obviously intended to be an inspirational figure, a little man with a Big Dream who is determined to make that dream come true at any and all costs and despite the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against him. Yet, even in a fantasy film, the dream has to have some connection with reality, some degree of plausibility to make us believe in it to the same extent that the character does. Unfortunately, in "The Astronaut Farmer," we find ourselves more often siding with the derisive skeptics and cynical killjoys from NASA, the FBI, and the nearby town - who, of course, are portrayed as the villains of the piece - than with Farmer and his preposterously supportive family who already seem to be living on another planet anyway (which tends to negate the need for any such trip in the first place).
Indeed, questions of mental balance are never far from our minds when we see Farmer (well played by Billy Bob Thornton) bankrupting his ranch to finance his quest and dragging his 15-year-old son and two pre-pubescent daughters out of school so that they can function as his Mission Control team of "experts," who are going to be responsible for not only launching him into space but returning him safely back therefrom (not too much undue pressure there, eh?). And what are we to make of the fact that Farmer is so obsessed with fulfilling his own dream that he's willing to go on this potential suicide mission with the distinct possibility that he will leave his wife a widow and his children without a father? In his reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions, Farmer goes well beyond the harmless Quixotic crackpot that the script intends him to be and becomes a genuine threat to the lives and safety of himself and those around him. Even his wife (Virginia Madsen), who is portrayed as a relatively clear-thinking, level-headed pragmatist, is really little more than an enabler who, instead of putting the brakes on her husband's obvious foolishness, encourages him to ever more dangerous heights of certifiable insanity.
The actors - Thornton, Madsen, Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern, Max Thieriot - do what they can with what they've been handed, but the screenplay by Mark and Michael Polish is so filled with sappy, a-guy's-gotta-dream inspirational speeches and cued-up musical crescendos that we feel worked-over and manipulated from first moment to last. The movie does look terrific, however, with director Michael Polish and cinematographer M. David Mullen using the wide open spaces of the rural western landscape to impressive effect.
I know that we're not supposed to take this movie all that seriously, that we are expected to check our credulity at the theater door for the duration of the movie, then pick it up on the way back out. But even a fantasy film has to make some sort of reasonable compact with its audience and "The Astronaut Farmer" asks us to accept far too much on sheer goodwill and faith alone. Yet, you know a movie isn't working when, instead of rooting for the protagonist to succeed in his adventure, you find yourself hoping that some trained, licensed professional will step in and perform an intervention on him before he does serious injury to himself and his loved ones.
I have been a great admirer of the Polish Brothers' work in the past - "Twin Falls Idaho," "Northfork" etc. - but "The Astronaut Farmer" is a fool's mission that should never even have been brought to the launching pad, let alone cleared for take-off.