UP IN THE SKY
THE ASTRONAUT FARMER
(2 and a half out of 4)
Directed By: Michael Polish
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen,
Bruce Dern, Jon Gries,
Tim Blake Nelson, JK Simmons,
Sal Lopez, and Bruce Willis.
Running Time: 104 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Charles Farmer’s shot at going to outer space was thwarted when he chose to return home after his father’s suicide. As a young man, Charles was an astronaut. But instead of career, he decided that his family was the priority. Still, the passion to leave it all behind and orbit the Earth never left.
The Astronaut Farmer is the Polish Brothers’ most accessible film to date. This odd mix of Disney-inspired family friendly nonsense with Polish Bro quirkiness almost works, but the tone proves to be way too cheesy to be satisfying. And while there are moments of tension during the various launches, and a brief sense of wonder during the (already spoiled by the trailers) space moments, the film as a whole never rises above predictable foolishness. The hammy performances and clichéd dialogue doesn’t help make the story the least bit credible.
Here’s the tale of the tape: Charles Farmer is a rancher who was once an astronaut. The aforementioned family issue prevented him from going into outer space on the government’s nickel, so, over the years, he collected old rocket material from a scrap yard in order to construct his own space vehicle. And Farmer’s ship is a sight to behold—it looks kind of like a missile, and the US government has taken notice.
When Farmer mortgages everything in one last push to launch his rocket, the FAA and the military get involved. This leads to a series of comic confrontations where the FAA, led by a director-type named Jacobsen (JK Simmons), holds hearings in an effort to stop Farmer from realizing his dream. No doubt, you’ve seen that scene where Farmer makes his “weapons of mass destruction” comment before a panel of guys in suits. And only in the Hollywood movie world would this meeting take place in a high school gymnasium!
Everything in Astronaut Farmer is a plot device. This means that every line of dialogue is perfectly timed to move the story along, make us chuckle, and above-all, work well in movie trailer clips. But, honestly, this kind of filmmaking is entertaining to a fault and but doesn’t quite make the grade. What’s really sad is that when the story makes an attempt at drama, the tone change from goofy fun Disney pic is a little disconcerting.
Thornton makes a great astronaut Farmer. And I enjoyed seeing Madsen as his wife, with Bruce Dern as her father. But everything is a little too clean. The characters have emotional issues, through seem to deal with them with a level-headed clarity that isn’t the least bit genuine. After all, the title character decides to spend all of his family’s money, risk his life, and, if the rocket explodes, the life of everyone around him, just to propel himself into the Earth’s orbit for a little while. Frankly, this makes for pretty pictures but not much pathos.
The Polish Brothers, Michael and Mark, are smart guys. Their previous, almost unwatchable-in-one-sitting work (Northfork), was interesting and showed great promise. But by diving into family oriented mainstream fare, they give us nothing more than a modern, funky family film in the vein of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. And while this comparison isn’t exactly fair, The Astronaut Farmer will hopefully not destroy their rising dreams that, unlike those of Charles Farmer, aren’t really dangerous or destructive.