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The Astronaut Farmer

(2007) * Pg
104 min. Warner Brother Pictures. Director: Michael Polish. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson.

I don't have to tell you how deeply ironic it is that the first movie the Polish Brothers released after publishing their book The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking: An Insider's Guide to Making Movies Outside of Hollywood is a Warner Brothers picture that includes an Armageddon reunion between Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis. But I do have to tell you that The Astronaut Farmer is a crappy movie.

A glance at the trailers is enough to tell you that The Astronaut Farmer tells a ludicrous story. If you can get past the notion of a one-time aspiring NASA astronaut building his own spacecraft on his family farm, you're right where the Polish brothers want you (Michael Polish directs and co-writes with brother Mark; both produce). For most of the picture, the Polishes conspire with national-treasure Thornton to maintain an amiably low-key tone that suggests The Straight Story, but The Astronaut Farmer is more like E.T. for adults, with silhouetted FBI agents showing up in black sedans to stop Chuck Farmer (yep, the astronaut Farmer) from achieving his dream.

At times, overacting among the supporting cast makes The Astronaut Farmer uncomfortably like an overgrown episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Taking a different tack, Jon Gries of Napoleon Dynamite and Mark Polish underplay their cartoonish, ineffectual FBI agents, who should be able to shut Farmer down, confiscate his materials and, if necessary, jail him, but instead stand around. Other authorities go after Farmer: a bank manager (Farmer owes fifty grand on a delinquent loan), a psychology teacher, the CIA, FBI, and FAA. But that Farmer's an irrepressible American original, a maverick, a hero. I know this because Stuart Matthewman's score tells me so.

"Space is a difficult thing to grasp," says Farmer, but darn it, this is America, where any man can lead a horse around his ranch in a spacesuit, order 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel, pull his kids out of school to join "the Farmer space program," and launch a spacecraft against the advice of, well, everyone. "When I was a kid, they told me I could be whatever I want to be," Farmer explains. "If we don't have our dreams, we are nothing." Here, then, is the perfect film for all those delusional, self-entitled American Idol rejects. As hard to believe as this sounds, they deserve their dream more than the inordinately selfish farmer, who risks his family of four on his crazy dream.

The biggest load of hooey is that the Polishes side with Farmer and not his sane wife (Virginia Madsen, who one theater over tends to another insane hubby in The Number 23). In a moment of unintentionally sublime screen camp, Madsen throws plates at Thornton and yells, "You want to see flying saucers?" Later, even she succumbs to Chuck's dream, shrugging, "What man doesn't say he wants his space?" If only the movie were a Zucker-style spoof of Hollywood corn, the Polishes might have had something. In fact, they come close to dramatic success with a plot reversal at the end of the film's second act. But they inadvisedly soldier on to a feel-good finish that's a triumph only of falseness.

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