February 22, 2007

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Astronaut Farmer (PG)
Billy Bob Thornton builds himself a rocket and launches himself, giddyup, into space in the goofy but sweet Astronaut Farmer.

Charles Farmer (Thornton) is a Texas rancher who has tried, with limited success and a great deal of failure, to hold on to his fatherís cattle ranch. His wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) provides the familyís only steady income ó as a waitress ó and doesnít realize quite how far behind the family is on its many mortgages. Farmerís troubles might be caused in part by the fact that he only took up farming when his father died and in part by his spending most of his time and a good deal of money on building a rocket ship. His is not just a really cool hobbyistís model. Charlie Farmerís rocket is constructed very similarly to some of the first rockets that took one-man missions into orbit around the Earth in the early days of the space program. Farmer was on the fast track to the sky himself but left NASA when his family hit hard times. Now he plans to launch himself heavenward on his own.

He has, however, two major problems. The first is that heís broke and doesnít have the money to buy the rocket fuel he needs. The second is that just asking to buy rocket fuel has brought him to the attention of the federal government, which isnít at all keen on seeing a civilian launch anything anywhere. When the feds show up, Farmer goes to the press and attempts to get the world behind his working-manís-gotta-have-a-dream philosophy for all itís worth.

Farmerís rocket obsession eventually involves his family ó he pulls his kids out of school to work in the Farmer space program and Audrey finds herself pestered by both fans and child protective services at work. Even though Project Rocket becomes a strain on the family, Audrey also has mixed feelings about asking Farmer to give it up, afraid that it will lead to his depression and a general sense of familial hopelessness.

Astronaut Farmer is big on family themes, almost as big as it is on themes of believing in your dreams and never giving up and the like. I think itís the family stuff more than the dream stuff that makes this movie ultimately appealing in spite of its goody-two-shoes outlook. As with most really good family entertainment (which Astronaut Farmer is ó probably suitable for kids about eight or nine years old while still being engaging and dryly humorous enough to entertain their parents), we get a story about family relationships that is at least as interesting as the bigger story of adventure. Thornton and Madsen, in spite of some of the hokier parts of their characters, actually do give us a good examination of how a married couple supports each other, even when itís hard, even when the dreams sought after are sort of beyond reason. The relationship between the ridiculously luminous Audrey and the aw-shucksness-exuding Thornton actually resembles something approaching a real husband-and-wife relationship. In turn, the way the movie constructs the relationship between the parents and the children is also more complex than the usual movie-parent-personality choice between unbendingly strict and insanely permissive.

Astronaut Farmer has plenty of moments that either strain believability or are stuffed full of corn. But none of the hokiest parts of the movie are in the construction of the characters, which provide a solid foundation for a movie that is at heart good-natured and mildly enjoyable. B-

Rated PG for thematic material, peril and language. Directed by Michael Polish and written by Michael Polish and Mark Polish, Astronaut Farmer is an hour and 44 minutes long and will be open in wide release on Friday, Feb. 23. It is distributed by Warner Bros.