- Billy Bob gets a break from drunken-asshole roles.
In 2003, Mark and Michael Polish made Northfork, though just barely. The brothers, also responsible for the art-house fave Twin Falls Idaho, about conjoined twins who fall for the same woman, lost funding just before shooting began and had to beg for money to finish their reverie about lost souls wandering a flatland netherworld. In the end, theirs was an underappreciated, little-seen masterpiece -- a dreamscape about a town about to drown and the arrival of four freak-show strangers seeking The Unknown Angel, who may or may not be a dying little boy being kept alive by a grizzled preacher played by Nick Nolte. The Polish brothers, softies with a solid touch, doled out some mystery and magic, for which they were rewarded a major-studio deal (with Warner Bros.), some real dough ($13 mil), and the chance to make a fairy tale set not in the netherworld, but this one.
That movie, The Astronaut Farmer, will very likely alienate fans of their earlier work, who will wonder what became of their rueful inscrutability and scoff at the cornpone, heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment that permeates every second of this latest. But those who do turn up their noses at this story will miss out, because The Astronaut Farmer, about a former astronaut who still dreams of space travel and inspires his family with his indefatigable spirit, remains very much in line with the Polish brothers' earlier works. It's still a fairy tale, only for grade-school children for whom such aphorisms as "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing" are not hackneyed greeting-card sentiments but inspiration.
Billy Bob Thornton, blessedly shirking the drunken-shitheel parts that have defined his filmography of late, is the title character: Charlie Farmer, a former astronaut who long ago abandoned NASA for reasons that become clear late in the film. Charlie, whose sour poker face obscures a deep-seated ache, lives in a mythical West Texas, where desert dunes and farmland prairies exist side by side beneath blindingly blue skies. Even the name of his hometown, Story, suggests it's out of a bedtime tale.
When first we see Charlie, he's riding on horseback, wearing full astronaut getup; he looks like he's just stepped off the set of The Right Stuff. No one judges, though: His son's teacher, in fact, thinks he's a real role model, a parent willing to play dress-up to spur kids' imaginations. But Charlie's fantasy about flying into outer space collides with a harsh reality: His dream is about to bankrupt his family, and the bank is poised to repossess his home.
Charlie has spent every last penny on the rocket -- a shiny and towering spaceship constructed from junkyard parts -- that he's been building in the barn. For years he's hidden it from the townsfolk, till one day the FBI and FAA come calling, fearing that Charlie is constructing a weapon of mass destruction. He insists otherwise; after all, if it were a WMD, the feds never would have found it.
For a while, Charlie becomes a media sensation -- "the Rocket Man," as the press and Jay Leno dub him once the papers and networks descend upon the farm, awaiting liftoff. Even his old astronaut buddy (Bruce Willis, in an unbilled cameo) comes to visit, but only to offer Charlie a ride on the space shuttle if he's willing to abandon his fool's errand. Charlie isn't about to give in, lest he look like a failure in the eyes of the teenage son and two younger daughters who imagine going to the moon with their pa.
There is no denying it: This is male-weepy Field of Dreams territory, a tale of a son risking farm and family in order to escape the specter of his daddy's failures. All The Astronaut Farmer lacks are some old ghosts, though Bruce Dern as Charlie's father-in-law might indeed qualify: Dern, ashen and bedraggled, floats through the film like a smiling apparition. But this movie, like its softball predecessor, works precisely because it's bereft of modern cinema's cynicism -- that above-it-all sneer that permeates most of the best-intentioned kiddie films made more to hold parents' attention than their children's.
It's old-fashioned, sweet, and most of all, unabashedly earnest -- but not without its harsher moments that root the movie in a recognizable reality, chief among them a scene during which Charlie's wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) finally and violently loses her patience. Maybe this is a sucker's admission, or just the 'fessing up of a father who's read far too many nighttime tales to a three-year-old, but The Astronaut Farmer possesses both the skill and sincerity to break a grown man's heart and make a little kid dream a bit bigger. Is that too corny?