February 24, 2007 -- “The Astronaut Farmer” is an old-fashioned movie about distinctly American values, hard work, determination and holding true to your dreams. It is a movie about the individual triumphing over the system. It is also a movie about a family that sticks together and is inspired by one man's dream. If you like a Frank Capra-like movie (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “It's a Wonderful Life”), then this is for you.
Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad News Bears”) stars as Charles Farmer, a former astronaut who had to leave the space program when his father died, but never gave up on his dream of going into space some day. For years, he has been building a replica of an Atlas rocket in his barn, using junkyard parts left over from the early days of the space program. People in the Texas town near where he lives think Farmer is crazy, but nobody pays much attention to his rocket until he tries to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel. That brings the FBI, the FAA and other federal and state officials onto Farmer's ranch. All of them are trying to stop Farmer from blasting off.
All the pressure from the feds and Farmer's near bankruptsy causes problems between Farmer and his wife, Audrey. The couple's children, 15-year-old Shepard (Max Thieriot of “The Pacifier”), Stanley (Jasper Polish) and Sunshine, (Logan Polish), are caught in the middle. The basic plot of the movie is fairly predictable, but it does have some surprises up its sleeve. The film uses effective location photography and some impressive sets to lend some veracity to this far out film. The scale model of the Atlas rocket in the barn, however, is obviously too small, and the rocket's blast off from that location would burn the barn to the ground. The federal bureaucrats, let by FAA suit Jacobson (J.K. Simmons of “Thank You For Smoking”) are mere stick figures, although two of the FBI agents assigned to watch Farmer, agents Mathis (Mark Polish) and Killbourne (Jon Gries), do provide some comic relief.
You may have noticed several people named Polish in the cast. The film is directed and co-written by Michael Polish (“Northfork”) along with his brother, Mark Polish (who plays an FBI agent in this movie). The two burst on the movie scene in 1999 with “Twin Falls Idaho,” followed by the indie films “Jackpot” and “Northfork.” “The Astronaut Farmer” is the Polish brother's first major film with a wide release. How well this film does at the box office is very important to their futures. Since this is not really an independent film, critics may turn on the Polish brothers. Critics don't particularly like upbeat films, either. They tend to like darker films, where the audience is made to suffer depression for the sake of the director's artistic vision. The big question is will audiences respond to this kind of upbeat Capraesque film? That will be interesting to see. Me? I'm pulling for this film's success. It rates a B.
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