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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

For most of my life I’ve been called a “space cadet” by various and sundry people, mostly strangers and occasionally co-workers. Frankly, considering some of the other things that people have called me over the years I looked at “space cadet” as a compliment or at any rate a step in the right direction. At least for once no body parts below the waist were mentioned. So this weekend The Astronaut Farmer opened at the Essex Cinemas and it warmed my heart to know that Billy Bob Thornton, a true “space cadet” in the sense that he wore a vial of Angelina Jolie’s blood around his neck throughout their marriage, was now playing the other kind of “space cadet”, the real kind, the “I-want-to-go-into-orbit” type. Who better? Well, Michael Jackson, obviously, but the Polish Brothers, Mark and Michael, who wrote the screenplay, wanted their movie to include their astronaut coming back from space, and you know that if Michael Jackson was shot into space the only place most of America would want to send him is on a one-way trip straight into Uranus.

There is something so wholesomely satisfying about Billy Bob, which is obviously an actor’s deception. Anyone who really knows much about Billy Bob knows he is a funky guy and more of a Bad Santa than The Astronaut Farmer, but he can still convince me and audiences in general of just about anything with a flash of those baby blues and those dimples, still rakishly charming even as his face slowly ages with time. Who wouldn’t want to root for this would-be astronaut farmer actually named Farmer? In this film, he is a family man, married to blonde beauty Audrey "Audie" (Virginia Madsen; The Number 23), with two cute little girls, oddly named Stanley and Sunshine (the director and co-writer’s own equally unusually named daughters Jasper and Logan Polish) as well as with an adoring teenaged son, Shepard (Max Thieriot; The Pacifier), who hero-worships his father and lives to help him fulfill his Dad’s dream of going into space.

You see, this farmer is also Charlie Farmer, a once aspiring NASA crew hopeful who bolted just before he was to go into space when he received news that his father had committed suicide. Rather than continue with his scheduled mission, Charlie returned to the family farm to be with his wife and kids and offer them support, an action that got him permanently scrubbed from the space program and saddled him with no career future except to assume the responsibility for his father’s failing ranch, the same business that drove his dad to put a gun to his head in the first place.

Thus the story of
The Astronaut Farmer begins and it seems to meander without much purpose other than to examine Charlie’s seemingly never-ending commitment to his dream of someday making it up to the stars. When not tending to the cattle on the ranch (in full spacesuit no less) Charlie spends what little money the family has and all of his free time with Shepard building an actual NASA-style (and sized) Atlas rocket in his barn. Okay, so suspending the disbelief necessary to buy the idea that one guy (with or without an adolescent assistant) could physically, mentally, and financially manage such a challenge, it’s not much of a plot per se if all we are going to see is a couple of guys crawling around through wires and metal or having unpleasant conversations with bill collectors and the bank about unpaid mortgage payments. If that’s all there was going to be to this then my Uncle Ralph, the not-so-well-wired-electrician, could be a movie star. Actually, he probably could be regardless of his job because he has spent the past thirty five years often mistaken as the original model for everybody’s favorite spokes-doughboy, the Pillsbury Company’s Poppin’ Fresh, but that is another story altogether.

This being America, however, you know that if someone has a dream there is always going to be someone right around the corner ready to squelch it, and certainly that is never more true than if someone’s dream encroaches on the territory of the US Government, so the chief bad guys in the movie become those pesky Homeland Security and FBI types who run rough-shod
over our poor ole’ farmer Farmer just because he wants to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel. I suddenly felt so old; I kept thinking that for that much gas it was a shame they no longer gave Green Stamps. At least Audra/Virginia would be able to fill enough books to get a nice blender and maybe a small bottle of Jungle Gardenia by Tuvache for that many gallons’ purchase. Instead, all it gets is heartache and screen time for character actor J.K. Simmons as the cranky oversight official from the FAA determined to undermine Farmer’s efforts. Simmons reminds me of a live version of "The Simpsons" Mr. Burns, though not quite so life-like. He always bellows and looks like he has a bad case of Agita, whether he is screaming at Peter Parker in the Spiderman movies or at one of the guards during his long stretch as Vern Schillinger on the cable prison sudser “Oz.”

Of course nothing will help make the little guy a hero faster than being the target of the US Government. I’m convinced that Charles Manson would gain a rousing fan base if he was ever audited by the IRS. It’s just human nature
to root for the underdog, and so The Astronaut Farmer succeeds best when it turns its attention away from the fairy-tale aspects of the story and looks at our culture of celebrity and how it can be easily manipulated to gain support, empathy, and even safety and protection in the face of what is perceived of as a personal attack. As much as we may say we’d prefer to put the foolishness of “E!” type entertainment and tabloid culture at the bottom rung of our society, the truth is that it may be the lowest common denominator but it is also what binds us together as a people. TV tells us who to like and who to care about, and whether you get your information from Jay Leno while lying in bed at night or listening aptly to CNN for an “informed” opinion, one’s view is shaped by what we are shown and how it is presented, and The Astronaut Farmer does an excellent job in showing the disparities between the public and private moments that people like to guess actually happen in real life when the cameras aren’t shining brightly between sound bytes.

The Astronaut Farmer is a beautifully made film, well-photographed with lush cinematography and colors that evoke emotions of their own. The story is fairly slow and predictable, and certainly there are no big surprises to be found here… well, except maybe for one uncredited “guest” appearance by a big Hollywood pal of Thornton’s in a supporting role, but the strength of The Astronaut Farmer is not in the obviousness of the movie. It is in the reflection and, hopefully, the discussion it might generate amongst viewers about the actual freedoms of our citizenry, the power of the press, and the over-all credibility of the media and ease with which one can manipulate it. It is a serious subject matter, perhaps just a bit too-prettily wrapped and light-weight to succeed the way it must have hoped.

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