'Astronaut Farmer' lacks the right stuff

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Some movies are so flagrantly awful that they achieve classic status. To this rarefied company we must now add "The Astronaut Farmer," a nut brain fable that is all the more perversely enjoyable for being seriously intended.

Billy Bob Thornton is Charles Farmer, an aerospace engineer who dropped out of NASA's astronaut training program to return home and care for his sick father. Farmer is actually more of a rancher than a farmer, but mostly he's a loafer. Or at least that's how he comes across until we discover that, in his spare time apparently, he has built his own fully equipped rocket in a barn on his ranch in Story, Texas. (Located near Capra Valley, no doubt.)

Charles is one of those guys who has a dream and won't let anybody forget it, least of all his pathologically understanding wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), his two cutesy-poo daughters, Sunshine and Stanley, and his 15-year-old homespun genius son Shepard (Max Thieriot).

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Shepard, by the way, is named for Alan Shepard. Stanley is named for Stanley Kubrick. Is it possible that the identical-twin writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish are unaware that Kubrick had a monumental fear of flying?

Although the ranch is in foreclosure because of that pesky rocket money drain, Charles and his family remain starry-eyed at the prospect of him blasting off into the ozone. He takes the kids out of school to help him sweat the small stuff – like procuring 10,000 pounds of high-grade fuel. This little gambit raises a red flag with the FBI, CIA, and FAA, all of whom are portrayed as cartoon meanies standing in the way of Charles's realizing his dream. The fact that Charles would be igniting what amounts to a great big bomb in a populated community never registers with him. "Maybe I'm crazy," he says, "but I still believe that if we don't have our dreams we're nothing." Maybe he's crazy?

About halfway through the movie I thought the Polish brothers were pulling the audience's collective leg, but no, there are too many meltingly beautiful sunset vistas for that, too many heartfelt close-ups of Billy Bob arching his eyebrows skyward.

Bruce Willis, playing an astronaut buddy of Charles's, is suitably impressed with his friend's handiwork in the barn but nevertheless tries to convince him to try for a passenger seat on a space shuttle instead. It's an eminently sane suggestion, which, of course, is why Charles declines it.

When Clint Eastwood made "Million Dollar Baby," he started out with a live-your-dream story and swerved it into something darker and far less conventional. In "The Astronaut Famer," I thought that perhaps the Polish brothers were going for the same sort of thing after Charles's initial attempt at glory goes awry. Maybe the movie would be about how some dreams should quite sensibly remain dreams?

Nope. Charles believes that every man deserves a second chance. So he goes ahead and gives himself a third.

When he finally makes it into outer space, you might think that the Polish brothers would at least shoot the works and offer us some eye-popping views. But the space imagery is prosaic. So are the space thrills. At one point, Charles's console goes dark, but soon enough a few wires are crossed and he's back in business. Han Solo couldn't have done it any better.

This has not been a good month for astronauts. First that NASA diaper lady and now this. How did the right stuff go so wrong? Grade: D

Rated PG for thematic material, peril and language.

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