"Astronaut Farmer" is a motion picture that studies the life expectancy of dreams and the character they bestow on those who dare to keep their goals alive. It's fitting that the film comes from the Polish Brothers, identical twin filmmakers who have a fetish for the romantic ideal of defeated men getting a teeny chance at glory.
Long ago, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) was forced to abandon his dreams of space flight for the demands of his family (including Virginia Madsen). Now tending to his Texas ranch, Charles is secretly building a space rocket in his barn while trying to keep his finances afloat. Sensing a turning point in his life, Charles decides to launch his rocket, which leads to the overwhelming interest of the media and panicky agents of the government (including J.K. Simmons, Jon Gries, and Mark Polish), who do not want Farmer to succeed in his ambitious plans.
To me, "Farmer" recalls the Disney live-action films of the late 1960s, only now we have Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen in place of Dean Jones and Michele Lee. It's a gentle, optimistic family picture that barely registers a pulse, but doesn't offend either. In other words, it's a typical Polish Brothers picture.
In their last film, "Northfork," the Brothers reached awfully high for mystical whimsy only to be tripped by their own fascination with gloom. "Farmer" furthers the filmmakers' quest to slow cinema down to value the details, but there's no real drama to necessitate this lumber.
Angst is what keeps "Farmer" earthbound; the Polish Brothers love to pour on the melodrama for Charlie and his family to a point where it starts to outrun the joy of the man's dreams. The arguing comes off as padding; an effort to give the drama of Charlie's launch enough breathing room so it will mean something when it comes time to address it. The stalling dampens the experience, unnecessarily drawing the film out longer than it needs to be, belaboring certain story points of doubt to a point of screen death.
Still, the performances are right on with the fanciful tone of the film. I especially enjoyed Madsen, who takes the one-dimensional mother/wife/nag role and gives it some juice. She's the pragmatic puppet of the piece, and she's the one character who comes off as thoroughly human. It's a nice piece of acting.
If anything, the Polish Brothers understand the power of a thoughtfully composed frame. "Farmer" is a collection of gorgeous farmland photography and retro space race minutiae, lovingly captured by the production in a peculiar way that walks the line between period piece and fantasy. It's an interesting mix of past and present, and gives the Brothers their opportunity to enjoy their creation. When the story fails, the visuals still entice.
"Astronaut Farmer" is a harmless enough diversion, made with care and patience. Just don't expect to be wowed by it.
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