Shelagh McLeod’s debut feature is being released around the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, but it has nothing to do with that historic event. “Astronaut” is a schmaltzy fictional fantasy, the sort of picture that you might suspect has escaped from the Hallmark Channel.
Richard Dreyfuss stars as Angus, a retiree pushing eighty, whose wife has recently died, leaving behind a donkey sanctuary that’s a painful reminder of her absence. Now living with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) and her husband Jim (Lyriq Bent), a financial advisor, Angus is adored by his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), with whom he goes star-gazing in the chilly evenings. Angus has always dreamed of being an astronaut, you see.
His fascination with the skies comes into play when Marcus (Colm Feore), a billionaire entrepreneur who’s mounting a privately-funded space program about to launch its first flight, announces a promotional scheme whereby a lucky member of the public will be selected to fill one of the seats on the craft, free. The cut-off age is sixty-five, but Barney encourages his granddad to submit his name anyway, and so he does, thinking that with a bit of exercise and some cosmetic adjustments he can pass for fifteen years younger.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that his health problems intervene (he has a heart condition and has suffered some fainting spells), convincing Molly and Jim that Angus should enter a nursing home, at least for a while, and so the movie suddenly switches gears by introducing a bunch of colorful old folks who alternately kibbutz and cheer as he’s chosen as a semi-finalist in the space race and must go to Marcus’ operation center for a televised interview that, as on “American Idol,” will decide the winner of the contest. (One of Angus’ fellow patients—a stroke victim who can no longer move on his own or articulate words—is played by Graham Greene, a fine actor who can do little with the part. The other oldsters overcompensate with broad, amateurish turns.)
The script takes another twist when Angus goes in for his interview. A retired civil engineer with a bent for inspecting road pavements, he quickly suspects that the long runway built for the spacecraft might well buckle and break under its weight during takeoff. His concerns are dismissed by Marcus and his engineers, but his not being voted in by the audience is certainly due more to his interview, during which he effectively has a physical breakdown and babbles incoherently. Still, that does not end his insistence that the runway issue not be allowed to go uninvestigated.
The implausibility of this scenario is obvious—an easily-obtained phony ID is apparently all that’s needed to get Angus past Marcus’ application system, and you have to assume that Marcus’ army of in-house engineers were oblivious to the runway factors that Angus notices simply by picking up a few pebbles—and one has to swallow a lot to accept Angus’ story at all. McLeod doesn’t help things by adopting a very leisurely pace (Tiffany Beaudin was the editor) that makes the unlikely narrative swerves all the more glaring. There are also gaps in the screenplay—Jim, for instance, loses his job, but doesn’t tell his wife; nothing comes of it, and the thread is just left hanging. Moreover the special effects are, to say the least, unimpressive by today’s standards.
Still, “Astronaut” does give one the opportunity to spend some time again with Dreyfuss, who moderates the shtick of his younger days while milking the role for all the sympathy he can. The rest of the cast is at best adequate; even veteran Feore is stiff and affected.
As “Poms” showed just a few months ago, wish-fulfillment fantasies for the Medicare set are not easy to pull off. “Astronaut” is better than that sad Diane Keaton vehicle, but still little more than an exercise in rank sentimentality.