Rugged individualism made this country. Didn't it? Then again, there are those who argue that the same classical American trait, minus concern for our neighbors, has gone an uncomfortably long way toward unmaking it.
Either way, "The Astronaut Farmer" is a heap of rugged individualism, perched atop a silo of corn. It's an all-ages fable made by folks (identical twins Michael and Mark Polish) who aren't pushing a political agenda, at least consciously. Their story's anti-government, pro-visionary crackpot stance transcends politics. Nonetheless the libertarians in particular should be pleased. The problem with America, according to this half-baked but warmly acted affair, is that it just won't let amateur rocketeers do their thing.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Charles Farmer, a man with two dreams: to launch his homemade rocket into space and to survive the return to terra firma. An ex-Air Force man and one-time NASA hopeful, Farmer lives on his heavily mortgaged ranch under the big, beckoning skies of Story, Texas. (I suppose changing Story to Symbolism would've been asking too much.) Virginia Madsen plays his understanding-bordering-on-denial wife; Max Thieriot plays the oldest and wisest of the three little Farmers, enlisted to aid Farmer Senior with his launch.
The Polish brothers have made three small films prior to "The Astronaut Farmer": "Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot" and "Northfork." This one wobbles between its comic and dramatic concerns; even those who buy the film more wholeheartedly than I might consider the overall tone uncertain.
It's meant to be a tall tale, and Thornton emits just enough low-level strangeness as a screen actor to keep the role, and the film, from pure reverence. There are setbacks, but Farmer believes and dreams and pounds away in his lavishly scaled, rocket-sized barn out back. Thornton walks a fine line with no little finesse. Madsen holds down the fort with grace and authority. Bruce Dern plays her father; Tim Blake Nelson plays Farmer's legal counsel; Bruce Willis shows up, uncredited, as an old crony of Farmer's. Jay Leno plays himself.
When the plot calls for it, Farmer, hauled up before a scowling committee of the mean ol' Federal Aviation Administration, wins everyone over with one from the heart. "Somewhere along the line," he tells them, "we stopped believing that we could do anything." Farmer's a one-man argument against the existence of NASA: With guys like these, who needs a federal space program?
A better line in the Polish brothers' screenplay states the Farmers' domestic scene succinctly: "Without the rocket, we're just a dysfunctional family." Even with the rocket, it's a dysfunctional movie. I sort of liked it anyway, at least parts of it. The actors made me.