×

The Astronaut Farmer

The Polish Brothers 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." Planned for a wide February opening, Warner release will need careful marketing to build word-of-mouth. Critical support should run lukewarm.

With:
Charlie Farmer - Billy Bob Thornton Augie Farmer - Virginia Madsen Hal - Bruce Dern Jacobsen - J.K. Simmons Kevin Munchak - Tim Blake Nelson Shepherd Farmer - Max Thieriot Agent Kilborne - Jon Gries Agent Mathis - Mark Polish Stanley Farmer - Jasper Polish Sunshine Farmer - Logan Polish

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.

Popular on Variety

The Astronaut Farmer

Production: A Warner Bros. release of a Spring Creek Pictures and Polish Brothers Construction production. Produced by Mark Polish, Michael Polish, Len Amato, Paula Weinstein. Executive producer, J. Geyer Kosinski. Co-producer, Robert Benjamin. Directed by Michael Polish. Screenplay, Mark Polish, Michael Polish.

Crew: Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), M. David Mullen; editor, James Haygood; music, Stuart Matthewman; production designer, Clark Hunter; art director Jim Oberlander; set decorator, Marcia Calosio; costume designer, Danny Glicker; sound (Dolby Digital), Matthew Nicolay; sound designer, Jon Johnson; supervising sound editor, Christopher Sheldon; visual effects supervisor, Jason Piccioni; assistant directors, Andrew Coffing, Susan E. Walter; second unit director, Mark Polish; second unit camera, Philip Pfeiffer; casting, Victoria Thomas. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 15, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 104 MIN.

Cast: Charlie Farmer - Billy Bob Thornton Augie Farmer - Virginia Madsen Hal - Bruce Dern Jacobsen - J.K. Simmons Kevin Munchak - Tim Blake Nelson Shepherd Farmer - Max Thieriot Agent Kilborne - Jon Gries Agent Mathis - Mark Polish Stanley Farmer - Jasper Polish Sunshine Farmer - Logan PolishWith: Richard Edson, Sal Lopez, Kiersten Warren, Richard Barela, Julie White, Bruce Willis, Jay Leno.

More Scene

  • 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    Why the Television Academy Plans to Donate Furnishings From the 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    The Emmys’ official after party is set to impress — and to leave a permanent impression. At the annual press preview of the 71st Emmys Governors Ball, the Television Academy announced a partnership with Living Spaces, Habitat for Humanity and the Hollywood Community Housing Project that will provide more than 80 custom sofas, chairs and [...]

  • Gaby Hoffmann, Albert Cheng, Alexandra Billings,

    'Transparent' Team Reflects on Series Finale Without Jeffrey Tambor

    Friday night’s premiere of the series finale of “Transparent” at L.A. Live’s Regal theater felt like a family reunion for the Pfefferman clan. Matriarch Judith Light embraced each one of her TV children (Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass) and guest stars from previous seasons (Cherry Jones, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford) who also turned [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Pom Klementieff poses at the launch

    Marvel Cinematic Universe Star Pom Klementieff Talks Disney-Fox Merger, X-Men Dreams

    Pom Klementieff may have entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Mantis in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” followed by appearances in the last two “Avengers” movies, but that wasn’t her original superhero plan. “My dream was to be in X-Men,” she told Variety on Thursday at the Chanel dinner for its new fragrance Gabrielle [...]

  • Gwyneth Paltrow

    Gwyneth Paltrow to Be Honored at amfAR Gala Los Angeles

    Gwyneth Paltrow and art dealer Larry Gagosian are set to be honored at the 2019 amfAR Gala Los Angeles. The American Foundation for AIDS Research announced that the two honorees will receive the Award of Courage for their commitment in the fight against HIV and AIDS as well as for their other humanitarian efforts. Christina [...]

  • David Mandel Sam Richardson

    'The Handmaid's Tale,' 'Veep,' 'When They See Us' Writers Honored at Emmy Nominees Reception

    Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”), David Mandel (“Veep”) and Bruce Miller and Kira Snyder (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) were among those honored at the Television Academy’s Emmy nominees writers reception on Tuesday night in North Hollywood. There, ceremony hosts, “Escape at Dannemora” star Eric Lange and “Veep’s” Sam Richardson, kept the show moving by tossing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content