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The Astronaut Farmer
Nostalgia Undermines Otherwise Entertaining Family-Oriented Film
by Mel Valentin on Feb 23, 2007
If you were born between 1955 and 1985, chances are you once dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Of course, only a select few have actually made it into outer space. But what if you dreamed of becoming an astronaut, never became one, but still stubbornly held onto that dream, no matter how unlikely it had become? Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork, Twin Falls Idaho), tried to answer that question with their fourth film, The Astronaut Farmer, an somewhat contrived, whimsical, nostalgic, family-oriented drama about a man, a dream, and a home-made rocket to the stars.
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) once dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going into outer space. As the patriarch of the Farmer clan, he now runs his late father’s 353-acre farm. His family includes Audrey "Audie" (Virginia Madsen) his wife, and his three children, Shepard (Max Thieriot), Stanley (Jasper Polish), and Sunshine (Logan Polish). Despite limited resources and advancing age, Farmer refuses to give up on his lifelong dream of going into outer space. To that end, he's salvaged discarded rocket parts and constructed a near-functional rocket in his barn.
Farmer’s window of opportunity to launch the rocket shrinks when he receives a foreclosure notice from the bank. With 30 days to pay up or lose the farm, Farmer decides to push ahead with launching his home made rocket, but he has one minor problem: his rocket ship can’t reach outer space without ten thousand pounds of rocket fuel (it’s illegal, of course). The FBI sends two of its brightest and finest, Agents Mathis (Mark Polish) and Killbourne (Jon Gries) to investigate Farmer's rocket. The FAA also decides to step in, forcing Farmer to hire a local attorney, Kevin Munchak (Tim Blake Nelson), to defend him in front of the FAA's lead bureaucrat, Jacobson (J.K. Simmons), and the heads of several other federal agencies.
Given the storyline, it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Astronaut Farmer is tinged with nostalgia for a simpler, pre-civil rights, pre-feminist revolution, pre-Vietnam War era. Despite a presumably contemporary setting (minus Shepard's computer, a first generation iMac, and the use of modern cars and television equipment), The Astronaut Farmer could have been easily set during the 50s or the early 60s. The buildings, the clothes, the idyllic small town atmosphere, even the parts Farmer salvages to build his rocket hail from that time period. Only the pending foreclosure of the family farm suggests a contemporary analog or relevance.
There's a problem with all that nostalgia. The Astronaut Farmer is set in an almost all-white, rural enclave, with few exceptions. Women are related to homemakers, teachers, or nurses. Throw that all together and it's hard not to feel that the Polish brothers are nostalgic for an exclusionary, more conformist period in American history.
Questions aside, The Astronaut Farmer has a few of the Polish Brothers’ idiosyncratic flourishes that they have become known for (e.g., golden-hued sunsets/sunrises, striking tableaux, the government men in black, mix of different time periods, etc.). At its core, however, The Astronaut Farmer is a simplistic, feel-good story wrapped around occasionally breathtaking, arresting images. But given the allegorical complexity of the Polish Brothers’ last film, Northfork, shouldn’t we have been given more? Unfortunately, their bid for mainstream success came at a price.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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by Mel Valentin on Feb 23, 2007