For its first half-hour or so, “The American Astronaut” looks like midnight-movie nirvana in the tradition of “Eraserhead” and “Pink Flamingos,” tweaking viewers with the delicious sense that they’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Unfortunately that blast-off heralds an orbit to nowhere, with initial delight fading as pic runs out of ideas all too soon, never building a sense of momentum or narrative thrust. Commercial placement will be tough for a B&W sci-fi Western musical comedy whose terrific look/attitude ultimately can’t sustain a barely-there screenplay.
“Astronaut” is the first feature for helmer-writer-star Cory McAbee, who’s already made several amusing short films with his band, the Billy Nayer Show. That San Francisco-bred cult unit has always been as much a performance-art experience as a rock ‘n’ roll one, blending elements of surrealism, rockabilly, New Wave, spaghetti Westerns and inscrutable personal mythology. While their jokes sometimes border on the puerile, the utterly deadpan delivery lends everything a where-are-they-coming-from ambiguity that can be quite hilarious.
The same goes for “Astronaut.” But McAbee hasn’t sussed that a full-length film needs considerably more pacing variety and story oomph than a short — let alone several shorts strung together, which is precisely what his long-form effort feels like.
Nonetheless, kickoff impact is quite delightful, as titular protag Samuel Curtis (McAbee) lands his jumbo-vacuum-shaped spaceship at a remote asteroid outpost. Running a low-end interplanetary delivery service, he’s here to drop off one package and pick up another. But some chill time is required between flights at the local watering hole, which — establishing pic’s ridiculous Dust Bowl-ghost town “futurism” — looks like the dumpiest Elk’s Lodge-cum-wino-dive in all North Dakota, with grizzled/surly patrons to match.
This monosyllabic, fixin’-to-fight atmosphere of all-male machismo renders ideally incongruous what ensues when Curtis enters a bathroom stall: To his distress, two thugs (Mark Manley, Ned Sublette) trap him there while they dance and sing a threatening message (“Hey Boy!”). For a parting insult, they take a Polaroid of their angry and bewildered victim on the toilet.
Absurdist inspiration stays high as protag rejoins his old friend the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) for a drink. Latter wants Curtis to execute a one-man relay race, trading one rare item for another on various planets, with the promise of a big final payment. First, however, Pirate has a request: that Curtis be his partner in a dance contest. Their prizewinning two-step routine is as brief as it is funny.
Alas, fun decreases in inverse proportion to length as “Astronaut” rides on. Initially amusing, laconic tone grows tepid as later setpieces fail to top, or vary approach from, this first stretch.
Songs, noirish B&W lensing, sub-Ed Wood f/x, and overall atmosphere of irony-drenched cheesiness are all beguilingly off-kilter. But pic is simply too short on incident to hold attention; characters and genre-parodic elements never develop past starting premise. “Astronaut” could easily lose 20 minutes or more in the editing room, while addition of at least one or two more unbridled, energy-lifting scenes (especially toward end) would go a long way toward shoring up both creative effort and aud appeal. As is, package’s one-of-a-kind flavor will sadly wear thin for even the most indulgent viewers.
Design and tech contributions are well-turned, with excellent sound mixing (if variable staging) of the oddball musical numbers.