Billy Bob Thornton as Charles Farmer
Virginia Madsen as Audrey "Audie" Farmer
Max Thieriot as Shepard Farmer
Jasper Polish as Stanley Farmer
Logan Polish as Sunshine Farmer
Bruce Dern as Hal
Mark Polish as FBI Agent Mathis
Jon Gries as FBI Agent Killbourne
Tim Blake Nelson as Kevin Munchak
Sal Lopez as Pepe Garcia
J.K. Simmons as Jacobson
Kiersten Warren as Phyllis
Rick Overton as Arnold "Arnie" Milan
Richard Edson as Chopper Miller
Elise Eberle as Madison Roberts
Directed by Michael Polish
"The Astronaut Farmer" is a gorgeous, well-made film, even if it seems a bit safe and predictable compared to the Polish Brothers' previous work.
Years ago, Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) had to drop out of NASA's astronaut training program to take care of a family matter, but even as he and his wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) are having trouble making ends meet, he has sworn to follow his dream by building a full-size rocket in his barn with plans to launch it into space. It doesn't take long for the FBI and Dept. of National Security to get wind of it and soon, he has a couple FBI agents (Mark Polish, Jon Gries) breathing down his neck.
It's been four years since the Polish Brothers' period drama "Northfork," and though it's been a long time coming, "The Astronaut Farmer" may not exactly be what fans of that film might expect as a follow-up, since it's essentially a pleasant family-friendly adventure drama that's easy to digest, even if it sometimes feels a bit too safe.
The premise couldn't be simpler, as it follows Charlie Farmer's endeavor to build and launch a rocket from his barn. While it might seem like a strange dream to have, it makes some sense, since he had to give up his dream after leaving the NASA space program to deal with his father's illness, though you can also understand why the government is worried and why others think he's a bit of a crackpot. Surprisingly, he really isn't crazy and he really HAS built a full-size rocket in his barn, apparently with the full knowledge and know-how to get the thing off the ground. The problem is that by following his dream, Charlie has spent a lot of money that should be used to feed and support his family. Even with all their problems, his wife and kids are supportive as are the local townspeople, who suddenly see an influx of interest in Charlie from the media, even as the FBI tries to put a stop to the farce.
Really, that should be all you need to know about this movie in terms of the story in order to pique your curiosity about how things might play out, and despite the film's somewhat predictable nature, it does offer a number of fun surprises. It also offers a gorgeously shot film that's visually exciting, even as it veers away from the overly-stylish look of past Polish Brothers films. You really can tell what able filmmakers they are as they take what's essentially a character piece and keep the viewer interested. Fortunately, things do start getting exciting as it builds up to an early launch sequence which looks pretty amazing, especially considering the foreign farmland environment that you don't often seen in space films.
This is by no means an Oscar-contender in terms of its storytelling or acting, especially when it veers too far into over-sentimentality, but it's hard to find fault with the performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen who give life to their characters and keep you interested in following their story. Even more enjoyable is the comic relief offered by J.K. Simmons as Jacobson, the tough dept. head at the FAA--a similar character to the one he played in "Thank You for Smoking"--while Mark Polish and Jon Gries ("Napoleon Dynamite") keep things light as the incompetent FBI Agents assigned to keep an eye on Farmer. This great cast is rounded out by the likes of Tim Blake Nelson and Bruce Dern, a pleasant surprise in a small role as Audrey's father-in-law. There's even a fun, uncredited cameo by a former Thornton co-star as a fellow astronaut who tries to talk Farmer out of launching his rocket, which becomes one of those "ha!" moments that one can only hope isn't spoiled before you see the movie.
Of course, there's also a certain amount of suspension of belief that has to be in effect while watching a movie like this, especially towards the end as Charlie gets closer to fulfilling his dream, but there's something to be said for a movie that realizes it's a movie, as opposed to real life, and freely takes liberties with what's humanly possible in order to tell a more entertaining story.
The Bottom Line:
"The Astronaut Farmer" isn't nearly as quirky or daring as the Polish Brothers' previous films, and it's not a movie for a cynics who are unable to sit back and enjoy a pleasant fantasy about a dreamer and what might seem like an outlandish dream. On the other hand, you can do far worse than "The Astronaut Farmer" as far as your weekend entertainment and anyone looking for pleasant escapism should be able to enjoy this without having to turn their brain off completely.