I kept looking at “The Astronaut Farmer” to see if there was more to it than meets the eye. What meets the eye isn’t very encouraging: a simple, mildly uplifting story with little nuance to it. But it was written and directed by twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, whose previous films (“Twin Falls Idaho,” “Jackpot,” “Northfork”) have often employed symbolism and other literary devices. Perhaps “The Astronaut Farmer” is deeper than it appears?
Alas, I don’t think that’s the case. All the evidence suggests it really is just an ordinary, noncomplex film, something agreeable enough to spend 104 minutes on but not anything you’d want to hurry to see. The plot is the very picture of simplicity: Man wants something; man suffers setbacks; man resolves his problems in a way that allows for a happy ending. If you mapped out the events graphically, it would comprise a straight line, with no branches, detours, or subplots of any kind.
None of which is bad, necessarily; certainly we’ve seen more than our share of movies that were needlessly complicated. But “The Astronaut Farmer” is brought up short by its simplicity. The performances are nothing special, the dialogue is not particularly memorable, and the direction is merely competent. That leaves the plot as the possible saving grace … and it’s unchallenging and one-dimensional.
It sure sounds good, though: It’s about a Texas man who has built a functional rocket in his barn and wants to launch it into space.
The man is Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thonton), a former NASA pilot who had to retire when his father’s death left him with crippling debts. He never got a chance to go into space, but he has somehow — the film is cagey on the details — built a real live rocket that can be his transportation to the stars, provided he can get enough fuel to launch it.
The Farmers live on a dusty ranch in Story, Texas. Charles’ wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), is thoroughly supportive of her dreamer husband, and so are their three kids. Teenage Shepard (Max Thieriot) is training to be Charles’ ground control when the launch finally occurs. Even Audie’s aged father (Bruce Dern), whose lack of bloodline or romantic ties to Charles should make him the voice of reason, admires the way Charles has gotten his family not just to live together, but to dream together, too.
Of course, seeking to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel sends up a lot of red flags in post-9/11 America. The FBI shows up, and so do the reporters. Soon the Farmers are at the center of a nationwide media circus, with regular folks hoping he’ll launch the rocket while the FAA looks for reasons to stop him.
Launching yourself into space should be left to the professionals, they say, “they” being led by an FAA official named Jacobson (J.K. Simmons). The government doesn’t own the air or the atmosphere, say Charles and his lawyer/friend (Tim Blake Nelson).
“How do we know you aren’t constructing a WMD?” they ask.
“If I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” Charles says, in one of the handful of political statements that have been awkwardly wedged into the screenplay.
The movie is about taking control of your own destiny, and about chasing your dreams. Those are fine things for a movie to be about. This movie just feels like it needs to be about something more, too. It has heart and soul but no depth.
C+ (1 hr., 44 min.; )