Thanks to Billy Bob Thornton's cheery, slightly off-center portrayal of rancher/astronaut Charlie Farmer, The Astronaut Farmer is one of the most delightful surprises of the year, so far. This fable about life, death, family and dreams walks the line between cheese and heart with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat…
In some reviews, The Astronaut Farmer has been likened to Field of Dreams. Insofar as they are both fables about men who are willing to make sacrifices to achieve their dreams, that's a valid comparison. In the case of The Astronaut Farmer, however, the part of the dream that revolves around the lead character's father is much darker, giving this film a more deeply felt emotional core.
Charlie Farmer was an astronaut until a crisis with his father forced him to leave the Air Force – but he never gave up on his dream to go into space. Now, he has built his own rocket and is getting ready to launch. His family – wife Audrey [Virginia Madsen], son Shephard [Max Theriot] and daughters Stanley [Jasper Polish] and Sunshine [Logan Polish] – is solidly behind him. They even play a game at the dinner table where he leads off by saying, "I'm going to the moon and I'm taking…" and each member of the family echoes that sentiment and adds something that ties in, thematically, with whatever he's taking.
Unfortunately, when Charlie places an order of ten thousand pounds of rocket fuel, it brings down the FBI on him – and leads to an FAA review [which spawns the WMD lines that are featured in the trailer]. Because Charlie has financed his rocket by missing half-a-dozen mortgage payments on his ranch, he is in danger of losing it. Even a visit from an old friend from the space program [Bruce Willis] starts out positive but winds up depressing.
Even so, even the death of Audrey's father [Bruce Dern] can't daunt him. Finally, Charlie comes up with his own formula for fuel and manages a surreptitious launch – with disastrous results.
After a stay in the hospital, poor Charlie figures it's time to give up the dream. When Audrey discovers that her father left her enough money to pay off the bank, she is jolted by the banker's condescending attitude toward her husband's dream and winds up giving him the money to do what he's gotta…
You can tell that the Polish Brothers [Mark and Michael] are aiming for something special from the way the film strings iconic images throughout: Charlie in spacesuit rounding up a stray calf; Charlie in spacesuit, speaking for show & tell for his daughter's class; the reveal of the rocket, and so forth. That they succeed is, in part, due to our continuing fascination with space – and, in part, because they've given us a family that genuinely loves each other. In that context, the iconic shots and big dreams not only seem plausible, they feel necessary!
Something else that helps is that director Michael Polish clearly knows these people. He lingers just the teensiest bit when shooting Charlie and his family, giving us time to register their emotions and react. When he deals with the FBI Agents [Jon Gries and mark Polish] and FAA Chairman Jacobson [J.K. Simmons] his cuts are almost surgical, emphasizing their antagonistic and obstructive behaviour.
While the kids playing the Farmer children are quite delightful, Audrey seems underwritten just a hair, but is saved by Madsen's warmth and strength. Thornton is just right as the slight off kilter, but dignified and determined Charlie. When he pleads his case before the FAA review, or answers questions from the press who have surrounded his ranch, we never doubt for one second that he is completely, transparently sincere.
Although the effects aren't exactly state of the art, they are more than adequate to serve the story [are you listening, George Lucas?] – especially in the launch-gone-wrong that puts Charlie in the hospital. Which leads us to Charlie's decision to sacrifice his dream for his family. Thornton, again, makes us believe in him completely – and when he gets the money to try again, and his dream is reawakened, he communicates his joy so thoroughly, that we are energized as much as he…
The Astronaut Farmer is a film for all ages. There's a spirit of fun and adventure that will delight kids of all ages, and a core of heart and soul that will engage that part of us that dreams.