The Astronaut Farmer may be an astronaut, but he’s not a farmer. The title, it turns out, refers not to the protagonist’s occupation, but to his name: Charlie Farmer.
Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton) and his wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) have three kids. The oldest is teenaged Shep (Max Thieriot), whom the production notes say is named after astronaut Alan Shepard. That’s right: Their son’s name is Shepard Farmer.
Then there’s middle child Stanley, reportedly named after Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley’s name would be perfectly ordinary — if she weren’t a girl. (Stanley is played by the similarly counter-intuitively named Jasper Polish, director Michael Polish’s seven-year-old daughter. No word on who Jasper might be named after.)
Rounding out the family is the little girl they call Sunshine (cowriter Mark Polish’s four-year-old daughter Logan). No, that seems to be her real name. Sunshine Farmer.
The name-related quirkiness is one of a very few possible hints in The Astronaut Farmer that cinematic collaborators (and twin brothers) Mark and Michael Polish may not be entirely serious. It is also one of the hints that the Polish brothers, whose previous films have been compared to the defiantly weird work of David Lynch, are going for the same kind of feel-good departure as Lynch’s heartwarming 1999 film The Straight Story, which was similarly named after its protagonist, Alvin Straight.
Like The Straight Story, The Astronaut Farmer offers old-fashioned, down-home inspirational drama celebrating the seemingly foolhardy quest of a rural American protagonist determined to take an unconventional route to a seemingly unreachable destination, whatever the odds or opposition. As critic Lance Goldenberg (Creative Loafing) points out, at one point the homemade rocket ship Charlie is slowly building in his barn is even described as a big “John Deer lawn mower,” the very piece of equipment Alvin Straight rode in The Straight Story.
The Polishes’ last film, Northfork, was a head-scratchingly quirky art film that some found elusively poetic, but which I found gratuitously weird and impenetrable, riddled with pointless jokey conceits that seemed to challenge the audience to decide whether they were in on the joke.
The Astronaut Farmer appears to be exactly the opposite: a head-scratchingly un-quirky Hollywood movie that seems as earnest and unironic as the day is long, a big old-fashioned inspirational ode to following one’s dreams no matter what, to the goodness of family and the badness of bureaucracy.
Like the full-sized rocket in Charlie’s barn, the Polishes’ film looks every inch what it seems to be. It’s been compared to a Frank Capra film, though it lacks the dark undercurrent and comedic edge that give Capra’s films their heft and stature. Like Linus’s pumpkin patch, there’s nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.
The film opens with a sweeping montage depicting a horse and rider silhouetted against a sprawling Texas landscape (actually New Mexico). It’s an iconic image, with a catch: The rider is wearing a 60s-era space suit. It’s a fusion of two poles of American mythology, though hardly an unfamiliar one; “Star Trek,” Star Wars, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and Space Cowboys all juxtaposed cowboys and spacemen. (For that matter, so did Billy Bob Thornton’s earlier space-cowboy movie, Armageddon.)
The film hits all the expected marks. Most of them are in the tell-all trailer. For years Charlie Farmer has been quietly pursuing his obsession with launching himself into orbit. He has sunk his whole living and then some into the rocket in his barn, and his friend at the bank tries to warn him: “I don’t think you understand how close you are to a foreclosure.”
“I don’t think you understand how close I am to launching,” Charlie replies.
What brings the rocket man to the attention of the federal government are his efforts to acquire the five tons of rocket fuel he needs. This triggers post–9/11 security concerns, though it later seems that the government is at least as worried about the potential embarrassment to NASA’s federally funded space program if a Texas cowboy can put himself into orbit on his budget.
The movie gestures toward political consciousness here. Charlie’s lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson, Hoot, Holes) grumbles about the Patriot Act “twisting all the laws.” Charlie, speaking to a dour panel of federal bureaucrats headed by J. K. Simmons (Spider‑Man’s J. Jonah Jameson), gets his trailer-ready one-liner in response to the question “How do we know you aren’t building WMDs?”
Then, of course, at some point the media gets wind of Charlie’s hobby, and for awhile he becomes an offbeat pop-culture cause célèbre, cropping up in Jay Leno monologues and appearing on CNN.
Charlie’s wife Audie, a waitress at the local greasy spoon, is steadfastly supportive of her husband’s obsession. “I’ve always believed you’re going to launch the rocket,” she tells him. Still, it’s clear she sacrifices to share her husband with his extravagant dreams. “You didn’t even shower,” she grumbles mildly one night when he comes to bed late. “You smell like the rocket.” In a later scene, as the Farmers discuss possible names for the rocket, the Farmers’ Mexican hired hand (Sal Lopez) impishly proposes the name La Otra Mujer: “the other woman.”
Eventually, Audie does briefly rebel, furiously objecting that Charlie has recklessly (and not always openly) endangered the family’s financial well-being on a purely personal dream that could very well deprive their children of their father and her of her husband. She’s only just noticed?
Later, though, Audie concludes that Charlie’s rocket dreams are good for the family after all. Their little girls, she says, love their dreamer father and believe in his dream; she doesn’t want to take that away from them.
Charlie eventually comes to terms with the fact that his rocket could leave his children orphans. Yet even if that happens, he reasons, his children will at least see that he never gave up, that he followed his dream. He can live with that, he decides.
For me, this reasoning is at least as unconvincing as the practical implausibilities of the Farmer space program. I would rather be an inspiration to my kids for my commitment to being a good father, if necessary even sacrificing my own dreams for their sakes, than for my determination to follow my own dreams whatever the cost to me or to them.
In the movie’s logic, though, Charlie’s pursuit of his dream makes him “an excellent father,” according to his father-in-law Hal (Bruce Dern). Hal’s family, he says, didn’t even eat meals together. “You’ve got your family dreaming together.”
The film fitfully evokes a real sense of wonder, notably during a sequence, one of the film’s best, in which Farmer receives a visit from an old colleague (nicely played in a surprise cameo by one of Thornton’s Armageddon space-cowboy costars).
Ultimately, though, The Astronaut Farmer doesn’t quite rise above its clichés. Northfork plays for me less as an actual art film than a film about the idea of an art film. Similarly, The Astronaut Farmer feels more often than not almost like a diagram of an inspirational film rather than a full-blooded example of the genre.
The Straight Story builds to a quietly revelatory final scene that perfectly encapsulates the meaning and motivation of Alvin Straight’s quixotic trip. The Astronaut Farmer doesn’t manage the same trick, though an over-the-credits postscript may leave you with a smile on your face.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.