The Astronaut Farmer may be an astronaut, but he’s not a farmer. The title, it turns out, refers not to the protagonist’s occupation but to his name.
Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) and his wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) have three kids. The oldest is teenaged Shep (Max Thieriot), whom the production notes say is named after astronaut Alan Shepard. That’s right: Their son’s name is Shepard Farmer.
Then there’s middle child Stanley, reportedly named after Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley’s name would be perfectly ordinary — if she weren’t a girl. (Stanley is played by the similarly counter-intuitively named Jasper Polish, director Michael Polish’s 7-year-old daughter. No word on whom Jasper might be named after.)
Rounding out the family is the little girl they call Sunshine (co-writer Mark Polish’s 4-year-old daughter Logan). No, that seems to be her real name. Sunshine Farmer.
The name-related quirkiness is one possible hint that cinematic collaborators (and twin brothers) Mark and Michael Polish may not be entirely serious. It is also one of the hints that the Polish brothers, whose previous films have been compared to the defiantly weird work of David Lynch, are going for the same kind of feel-good departure as Lynch’s heartwarming 1999 film The Straight Story, which was similarly named after its protagonist, Alvin Straight.
Like The Straight Story, The Astronaut Farmer offers old-fashioned, down-home inspirational drama celebrating the seemingly foolhardy quest of a rural American protagonist determined to take an unconventional route to a seemingly unreachable destination, whatever the odds or opposition. Earnest and unironic, it’s an ode to following one’s dreams no matter what, to the goodness of family and the badness of bureaucracy.
The film hits all the expected marks. Most of them are given away in the tell-all trailer. For years, Charlie Farmer has been quietly pursuing his obsession with launching himself into orbit. He has sunk his whole living and then some into the rocket in his barn. His friend at the bank tries to warn him: “I don’t think you understand how close you are to a foreclosure.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Charlie replies, “how close I am to launching.”
What brings the rocket man to the attention of the federal government are his efforts to acquire five tons of rocket fuel. This triggers post-9/11 security concerns, though it later seems that the government is at least as worried about the potential embarrassment to NASA’s federally funded space program if a Texas cowboy can put himself into orbit on his budget.
Then, of course, at some point the media gets wind of Charlie’s hobby. For a while he becomes an offbeat pop-culture cause célèbre, cropping up in Jay Leno monologues and appearing on CNN.
Charlie’s wife Audie, a waitress at the local greasy spoon, is steadfastly supportive of her husband’s obsession. Still, it’s clear she sacrifices to allow her husband his extravagant dreams.
“You didn’t even shower,” she says when he comes to bed late one night. “You smell like the rocket.” In a later scene, as the Farmers discuss possible names for the rocket, the Farmers’ Mexican hired hand (Sal Lopez) impishly proposes the name La Otra Mujer: “the other woman.”
Eventually, Audie does briefly rebel, objecting that Charlie has recklessly (and not always openly) endangered the family’s financial well-being for a purely personal dream that could very well deprive their children of their father and her of her husband.
She has only just noticed?
Later, though, Audie concludes that Charlie’s rocket dreams are good for the family, after all. Their little girls, she says, love their dreamer father and believe in his dream; she doesn’t want to take that away from them.
Charlie eventually comes to terms with the fact that his rocket could leave his children orphans. Yet even if that happens, he reasons, his children will at least see that he never gave up, that he followed his dream. He can live with that, he decides.
Charlie’s pursuit of his dream makes him “an excellent father,” according to his father-in-law Hal (Bruce Dern). Hal’s family, he says, didn’t even eat meals together. “You’ve got your family dreaming together.”
For me, this reasoning is at least as unconvincing as the implausible Farmer space program itself. I would rather be an inspiration to my kids for my commitment to being a good father, if necessary even sacrificing my own dreams for their sakes, than for my determination to follow my own dreams whatever the cost to me or to them.
The film fitfully evokes a real sense of wonder, notably during a sequence, one of the film’s best, in which Farmer receives a visit from an old colleague (nicely played in a surprise cameo by one of Thornton’s Armageddon space-cowboy co-stars).
Ultimately, though, The Astronaut Farmer doesn’t quite rise above its clichés. Somehow it feels more often than not almost like a diagram of an inspirational film rather than a full-blooded example of the genre.
The Straight Story builds to a quietly revelatory final scene that perfectly encapsulates the meaning and motivation of Alvin Straight’s quixotic trip. The Astronaut Farmer doesn’t manage the same trick, though an over-the-credits postscript may leave you with a smile on your face.
Content advisory: An intense accident scene; references to a suicide; some objectionable language; mild innuendo; a fleeting sexual reference. Might be okay for older kids.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.