'The Astronaut Farmer' never achieves lift off
It's not that "The Astronaut Farmer" is so farfetched.
I mean, yeah, it's about a space cowboy in training (Billy Bob Thornton) who quits NASA to concentrate on saving his family's Texas ranch. And yeah, the guy ends up building a rocket in his barn -- twice, no less, because he crashes the first one -- with junkyard parts, the aid of a six-figure bank tab, and the full support of his neighbors. But none of that is the reason this movie ultimately falls to earth like an expensive chunk of space debris.
The real problem with "The Astronaut Farmer" is that it has no spark.
From the very first shot of Thornton on horseback, herding stray cattle in his spacesuit, this is a work that often feels orchestrated instead of inspired, literal rather than ethereal. Though its vision is as flat as the world is round, it asks us to cheer on Charles Farmer, a hardheaded dreamer who doesn't always deserve the support of his beautiful wife (Virginia Madsen), his tech-savvy teenage son (Max Thieriot), or his impressionable young daughters (Jasper and Logan Polish, offspring of the movie's creators). And boy, is it loaded down with warmed-over corn (official tagline: "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing").
Director Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho") and his twin brother/co-writer, Mark, do know how to be amusing, particularly in scenes where the rocket man's genius is psychoanalyzed by a high school nurse and his sponsorship potential is evaluated by the local Dunkin' Donuts manager. But they also take themselves way too seriously this time out, mishandling many obvious plot absurdities and foolishly insisting that the American dream is the same as the American dream-at-all-costs.
Farmer isn't Neil Armstrong or John Glenn; he's David Blaine with sketchier priorities and less common sense. Even if most people will gladly suspend disbelief for an honest, well-written story about a misunderstood renegade, this is not that story.
Thornton plays his Capra-esque, thoroughly flawed everyman with easygoing restraint that might be welcomed anywhere else; here it just contributes to the lack of magic. And Madsen is fine if unchallenged: She has little to do other than waitress, fret, accept, repeat.
Bruce Dern shuffles around as Farmer's regret-filled father-in-law, Tim Blake Nelson is the helpful lawyer who battles government dolts and party poopers (because what American doesn't want the neighbors to have 10,000 pounds of missile-grade fuel for their private Mercury-Atlas replica?), and there's a perky uncredited cameo that re-teams Thornton with a well-known action star.
"The Astronaut Farmer" does not acknowledge being inspired by any real person or thing and, in a way, that's comforting. The kind of people who really build their dreams in barns have to be far more interesting.