February 26, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

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One can only hope for the success of The Astronaut Farmer, if for no other reason than the slew of dual-occupation titles that would inevitably ensue: heartwarming tales like The Ninja Lawyer or The Doctor Plumber. Sadly, I suspect that this will not come to pass, because The Astronaut Farmer is the biggest drag of a movie that’s come around in a while. The Right Stuff for the do-it-yourself set, it aspires to producing the wonder and awe which that movie inspired, but falls far short, while allowing its inane plot to drag on to an interminable but predictable resolution.

The film is set largely in a Midwestern hamlet that gives the movie the little charm that it has. The town is so small that everyone knows everyone else, and they all get together to square dance at the local fair. The Farmer family also seems relatively average. They live on their ranch, eating wholesome meals together, and they are generally a happy bunch. The one small difference from the other ranching families is that they happen to have a rocket ship stowed away in their barn.

While Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) goes about ranching and building his spaceship, his wife (Virginia Madsen) dutifully works at a seedy diner in the middle of nowhere. One would think that if they had found enough money to build a rocket ship, having a day job (and such a depressing one at that) wouldn’t be necessary. Apparently though, building a rocket ship in your spare time is pretty easy and, surprisingly enough, relatively inexpensive. Granted, in the 1960s it took millions and millions of dollars and a whole government organization to get it done, but in this modern age of the Internet anyone can go into space. It seems that we are all just too lazy to actually get on it. For shame, America.

At any rate, this domestic and local bliss is interrupted when the federal government sticks its nosy head in. For some reason, they aren’t thrilled with the idea of some random citizen trying to launch a rocket from their backyard. That oppressive federal government, always keeping the average citizen down!

In an insulting moment, Farmer’s lawyer tries to characterize this action as motivated by the Patriot Act, as though the right to own and use rocket ships is a civil liberty. While I wish it were, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. Most of the movie’s conflict stems from this standoff with the FBI, but nothing comes from it. They wait around the Farmer household for what seems to be months and then do nothing to stop him.

Common wisdom holds that for a good film to be made, two of the following three criteria need to be met: a good cast, a good script or a good director. Now the cast is just fine — they do a great job with what little they’ve got. The director is alright too — he captures some interesting images and gets just the right emotion out of his actors. But the script is so bad in its plotting, and occasionally its dialogue, that it just overwhelms the first two. The Astronaut Farmer is inane and contrived, and it pushes the borders of both credulity and sappiness. Its theme, namely that you must follow your dreams, even at the expense of your life, family or livelihood, is ridiculous and patently offensive. If you do not risk everything to do what you want — the movie suggests — your life has been a total failure.

The plot of the film is not only insulting to the intelligence; it totally fails in its attempt at producing any emotional investment. Not only does one not care whether Mr. Farmer goes into space, there is a furtive hope that he will quickly meet his end in the attempt, if only so the movie will be over that much sooner. This movie is many things — ridiculous and facile to be sure, but mostly it’s just tedious. While the first two are glaring criticisms, the last is unforgivable.