Throughout this film from brothers Mark and Michael Polish (“Twin Falls, Idaho” and “Northfork”) one waits expectantly for some hint of irony to intrude. You keep thinking that so absurd a paean to the old saw about sticking to your dreams, no matter what, must be intended with tongue in cheek, that filmmakers with the Polishes’ sophistication must have some wicked twist up their sleeve.
No such luck. “The Astronaut Farmer” starts out slightly ridiculous and just becomes more and more so as it proceeds, ending up in a finale that’s apparently calculated to lift your spirits but will probably cause your jaw to drop instead. It wants to be a sort of adult version of Joe Johnson’s wonderful 1999 “October Sky,” which featured Jake Gyllenhaal, in one of his earliest screen performances, as a 1950s teen determined to launch his own small rocket and Chris Cooper as the father who can’t understand his son’s ambition. But that film was based on actual people, and treated the story in a credibly low-key way. This script, about a Texas rancher and erstwhile NASA trainee intent on building his own rocket and going off into space (against stern official disapproval, of course), isn’t remotely believable, and its efforts to tug at the heartstrings come across more like body blows to the brain. Even Billy Bob Thornton’s dry, bemused reading of the title character can’t save him from seeming more like a crackpot you’d cross the street to avoid rather than an underdog you want to root for.
Thornton plays Charles Farmer, an aerospace engineer who’d been an Air Force test pilot and NASA astronaut trainee before dropping out for family reasons. But he’d never given up his dream of soaring into space. So on his ranch in Story, Texas, he’s been building a rocket of his own with the support of his loving family—wife Audie (Virginia Madsen), who might have some doubts in her husband’s project but works at a waitress at the local truck stop to support their brood; teen son Shepard (Max Thieriot), who will serve as his dad’s mission controller; and darling daughters Stanley and Sunshine (Jasper and Logan Polish). Even Audrey’s dad Hal (Bruce Dern), a rumpled vagabond retiree who drops in from time to time, shows an amiable interest.
Unfortunately, even as he nears completion of his project, Charles faces difficulties. He’s mortgaged the farm to the hilt to finance his work, and the bank’s threatening to foreclose. And when the FAA gets word of what he’s up to, its head, Jacobson (J.K. Simmons), moves to put the kibosh to it for combined reasons of safety and self-interest, even sending a real astronaut (an unbilled Bruce Willis) to the ranch to persuade Farmer to give up his dream in exchange for a ride on a government rocket; and when that ploy fails Jacobson uses legal means to obstruct Charles, forcing him to hire a friendly local lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) to take on his case.
One can see what the Polishes are after here—a sort of extravagant Capraesque fable of a man with a vision who triumphs over official opposition—but from square one they never manage to make the plot remotely plausible or the characters truly sympathetic, and though there appear to be no cornfields on the Farmer ranch, the narrative stalks are certainly as high as an elephant’s eye. Despite Thornton’s best efforts at understatement, Charles comes across as a guy whose obsession verges on lunacy (an appropriate word, since he’s aiming at the moon), and, in spite of Madsen’s natural charm, Audie as an enabler (after all, we never see her husband doing any real work on the ranch; no wonder they’re about to lose it—and she shows her concern only very far on). In a performance that recalls his stentorian work as J.J. Jameson, Simmons makes a cardboard villain (with the crew he sends onto the farm early on all too similar to Peter Coyote’s government army in “E.T.”), and Mark Polish and Jon Gries, as two fish-out-of-water FBI agents who keep an eye of Farmer’s progress, offer comic relief that’s not nearly as funny as was obviously hoped.
Nor do the colorful supporting characters make up for things. Willis smirks in his customary fashion, and Nelson is so laid-back that he almost disappears. One’s really liable to gag when, out of left field, Sal Lopez is dragged into things as the Farmers’ hand Pepe, who turns out to be an illegal immigrant whom Jacobson threatens with deportation if Charles doesn’t give up his dream. (Nothing comes of that plot thread, needless to say.) And then there’s Dern, whose lovable old codger seems to be added to the mix for no reason whatever until the purpose for his presence is made clear when Charles suffers a setback and needs a miracle of sorts to allow him to recoup. (No spoiler here, but suffice it to say that the way in which the script manages this third-act reversal makes the absurdity that’s gone before appear utterly benign by comparison. In its last half-hour or so, the movie literally rockets into the heights of the ridiculous.)
“The Astronaut Farmer” is reasonably well made, with nice if unexceptional cinematography by N. David Mullen, but the visual effects (supervised by Jason Piccioni) have a cheesy, almost home-made feel—which, if the film were more affecting, might be charmingly clunky but here come across as simply inept—a description fits that the movie as a whole.