COURTESY WARNER BROS.
Stanley (Jasper Polish, left) and her sister Sunshine (Logan Polish) help their dad, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), train to go into space.
Fantasy a timely take on launching dream
An eccentric startles officials with a hobby that really is rocket science
Some guys tinker with cars in their garage, others build boats in the yard or airplanes in their basement. It's not about the vehicle, it's about the journey of the imagination the vehicle represents. Hobbies are healthy escapes from reality. But rancher Charlie Farmer is building something big in his barn. Really big.
'The Astronaut Farmer'
Opens Friday in theaters
Turns out to be a suborbital ICBM Atlas cobbled together from spare parts and NASA junkyards. Atop the missile is a Spam-in-a-can Mercury capsule. Charlie intends to launch into space someday. He's not just escaping reality, he's exiting the planet.
His family enthusiastically supports this pipe dream, because it is, face it, way cool. And as his wife observes, without this dream, they're just a standard-issue dysfunctional family.
But when Charlie attempts to acquire 10,000 pounds of highly explosive rocket fuel, Homeland Security goes ballistic. And the bank is closing in on his multiple-mortgaged ranch. And Charlie, who seems to be a harmlessly space-oriented eccentric to his neighbors, turns out to be a real ex-astronaut and aerospace engineer who just may be harboring a death wish. If he wants to light that candle, Charlie's window of opportunity is closing fast.
Michael and Mark Polish's movie is charmingly acted and gorgeous to look at, and clearly touches a strain of modern American mythology. It's a fable about chasing your dreams, or maybe it's about how your dreams chase you. As a movie, however, it has a built-in problem -- either Charlie rockets into space, and it's pure fantasy, or he crashes and burns, which is more realistic but a complete bummer.
The Brothers Polish cleverly manage to touch both bases. And they're probably thanking their lucky stars that the movie opens two weeks after a lady astronaut went suborbital in her own way.
As a science DIY, the technology -- a decades-old Atlas frame, Centaur engines and modern propellants and electronics -- is doable, but you'd need a pretty big barn. The real pleasures of the movie are in the quirky ways it unfolds -- sunny with dark undercurrents, like a Midwest thunderstorm -- and in the performances.
Billy Bob Thornton's Charlie Farmer wears his eccentricity with weary acceptance; he knows what he's doing, just as he knows that virtually everyone outside of his family simply thinks he's nuts. It's a burden he's willing to bear because his eyes are on the prize. And as his working wife, Audie, who waitresses down by the local greasy spoon to make ends meet, Virginia Madson is so lovely, common-sensical and good-humored that I'm sure the locals hang around for an extra cuppa.