The Polish Brothers, sibling creators of hipster pics “Twin Falls Idaho” and “Northfork,” seem unlikely candidates to make a film that might play most successfully to deep-heartland family auds. But such is the case with “The Astronaut Farmer,” whose quirky-sounding premise — Billy Bob Thornton as a Texas rancher and family man determined to launch himself into orbit via a self-built rocket — belies the “Field of Dreams”-style opus whose principal notes are inspirational, sentimental and downright square. Planned for a wide February opening (after December awards-qualifying dates), Warner release will need careful marketing to build word-of-mouth. Critical support should run lukewarm.
Thornton plays Charlie Farmer, husband to the devoted Augie (Virginia Madsen), father to 15-year-old son Shepard (Max Thieriot) and younger daughters Stanley (Jasper Polish) and Sunshine (Logan Polish). As we eventually learn, Farmer was once an astronaut-in-training, but had to drop out when tragedy struck back at the ranch. In the decades since, the space race lost momentum. But Farmer didn’t — in fact, from spare parts, he’s managed to assemble a shiny, sizeable, perhaps functional rocket ship in the barn.
This obsession is treated more like pie-in-sky lunacy by many locals, who don’t expect Farmer to get off the ground. The effort has also run him deep into the red — and the bank he’s just asked for yet another loan threatens foreclosure.
The Feds take notice when Farmer attempts to buy 10,000 gallons of rocket fuel. They descend en masse, fearing some nutjob building his own Weapon of Mass Destruction. Jon Gries and Mark Polish as Mutt ‘n’ Jeff FBI agents, J.K. Simmons’ hostile FAA chief, and Bruce Willis in an extended retired-astronaut cameo exert pressure to dissuade Farmer.
Meanwhile, international media arrive at the behest of protag’s local lawyer pal Tim Blake Nelson. They deliver some public rooting interest, but also make a freakshow of the “Farmer Space Program.”
Panicked, Farmer abruptly launches. His ride is short, disastrous, and (all-too-conveniently) avoids injuring anyone but himself. Chastened, he recoups. Film’s biggest suspension of disbelief is called for when Madsen’s supportive wife decides that a possibly dead husband is still a better role model than one who “gave up.” Emotionally and economically, she underwrites subsequent construction of a second ship.
Some viewers may wonder just how inspirational — or even sane — a man can be while pursuing his single-minded obsession at the highest potential cost to loved ones. But “The Astronaut Farmer” demands most literal acceptance of Farmer’s statement, “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” There’s no room to consider that some dreams may be wrongheaded. Farmer’s climactic launch does generate some wonder and suspense, but anyone expecting ironic commentary will get the silence of deep space.
Thornton carries the film with relaxed authority, though the earnest tone doesn’t let him explore the nuttier aspects of a character who, from any reasoned distance ought look more screwy than heroic. Madsen is radiant — often literally, given beatific-backlighting nature of M. David Mullen’s widescreen photography — as an ideal wife and mother. Support players are fine, but given little room to make a major impressions.
Lensing is by far the outstanding element in the smooth $13 million production package (shot in New Mexico doubling as Texas), with several truly gorgeous sunset and sunrise sequences highlighting a visual presentation that at times borders on the excessively prettified. (Does anyone actually work on this ranch, by the way?) All tech contribs are high-grade. Abetted by numerous alt-country tracks, Stuart Matthewman’s original score is least interesting when sticking to familiar Americana-uplift orchestration.