Astronaut Farmer, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"To dream the impossible dream… This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far… To reach the unreachable star."

Perhaps no sentiment better expresses what The Astronaut Farmer conveys than those lyrics by Joe Darion from Man of La Mancha. Like many similar inspirational motion pictures, this one requires a high level of suspension of disbelief, but one would expect no less from a modern day fairy tale. Once that hurdle is cleared, The Astronaut Farmer offers dreams, obsession, faith, courage, and redemption. The path from beginning to end is surprisingly non-linear and the film offers a surprise or two (effectively ruined by the tell-all trailer that irons out every plot twist in two minutes of spoilerage). On the whole, The Astronaut Farmer does what the Polish Brothers must have envisioned when they put this movie into development.

Everyone thinks Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is nuts. After all, he has spent the majority of his adult life building a rocket in his barn. No believes it will ever get off the ground except Charles; his wife, Audrey (Virginia Madsen); his children, Shepard (Max Thieriot), Stanley (Jasper Polish), and Sunshine (Logan Polish); and his father-in-law, Hal (Bruce Dern). They have faith, although whether it is well-placed remains to be seen. Charles has sunk every last cent into the endeavor. His 300-plus acre ranch is mortgaged six times and the bank is ready to foreclose. He has less than 30 days to get the rocket into space or risk losing his dream. However, when he starts making inquiries about buying premium grade fuel, the government takes interest and soon Charles is at the epicenter of two storms: one political and one media-oriented.

The emotional core of the film is perhaps described best by Hal. In arguing that Charles is a great father, he observes that the Farmer family not only eats meals together, but they share the same dream. The Astronaut Farmer is about the necessity of chasing dreams and never giving up, even when the dream seems unattainable. Later, when Charles considers stopping because the price has become too high, his wife remarks that without the rocket, they're just an ordinary dysfunctional family. It's the dream that has made them unique.

It's nice to see Billy Bob Thornton playing someone other than a variation on his Bad Santa personality. Here, he's the likable underdog - a loving husband and father who sees his dream not as an obsession but as the glue that binds them together. He is pursued by ghosts from the past, one of which threatens to undo him. Virginia Madsen is solid as his supportive wife although the part doesn't demand much range. Smaller supporting roles go to some familiar faces, including Bruce Dern as Audrey's father, J.K. Simmons as the head of the F.A.A., and an uncredited Bruce Willis as a former shuttle pilot.

The Polish Brothers, working in a more mainstream arena than they traversed for their previous feature, Northfork, have crafted an affectionate motion picture that plucks at the heartstrings without becoming too melodramatic. The Astronaut Farmer is one of those movies that makes an audience want to cheer and clap. From a real world engineering standpoint, the movie doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but it is dramatically effective. Some might think the PG rating signals a kids' film but, while The Astronaut Farmer represents suitable viewing material for younger audiences, it evidences dramatic and thematic maturity. No adult should feel ashamed seeing it because, regardless of the age of the viewer, the reward is worth the investment of 100 minutes.

Astronaut Farmer, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2007-02-23
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1