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Writing, acting give this liftoff

Michael and Mark Polish give an unconventional feel to `Astronaut,' and Billy Bob Thornton, with a great supporting cast, gives it soul.

February 23, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The brothers Polish, Michael and Mark, make a credible leap to big-budget studio features with the feel-good, dreamer drama, "The Astronaut Farmer." Though they relinquish some of their trademark quirkiness and visual flair, the sibling filmmakers nevertheless emerge with a movie that's atypical of Hollywood fare.

There's something old-fashioned about "The Astronaut Farmer" that's so conventional it feels unconventional. It follows the paradigm of inspirational movies so perfectly that even the smallest deviation seems rebellious. The movie's orthodoxy is precisely what allows us to take such pleasure in its irregularities.

The film's general message is familiar from the many movies about men crazy enough to think they can do anything as well as numerous episodes of "Oprah." It's summed up simply in the tagline, "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing."

In the movie, the words are spoken, or more precisely, spat out by Billy Bob Thornton, playing middle-aged Texas rancher Charles Farmer. The phrase hangs in the air, dripping with scorn, as if the idea of forgoing his dream repulses Farmer.

His dream happens to be a pretty wild one. As a young pilot, Farmer was forced to drop out of NASA's space training program when his father died and he was called home to take over the ranch.

Now, many years later, Farmer builds a rocket in which he plans to orbit the earth solo, with his 15-year-old son acting as his mission control. This doesn't sit well with an alphabet soup of government agencies that are determined to shut down the operation.

The idea of a man, generally a loner, pursuing a singular goal while ignoring those who think him a fool, is almost always an attractive one. After all, who among us has not had some dream that has eluded us?

The goal, like Farmer's, is often looked upon by others as an irrational one. As with Ray Kinsella, who plows under his cornfield to build a baseball diamond in "Field of Dreams," Farmer sees it not as an improbable ambition but an unavoidable one. It's not the right thing to do, it's the only thing to do.

Much of the credit for the movie succeeding goes to Thornton. In his able hands, Farmer is not so much someone who simply has faith in what he is doing but a man who believes with incontrovertible knowledge of what can be accomplished.

The filmmakers have surrounded him with a uniformly strong cast including Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons and an unbilled Bruce Willis.

As in their three previous independent features -- "Twin Falls, Idaho,' "Jackpot" and "Northfork" -- the Polishes mine a swath of Americana that seldom turns up in movies, at least with their sense of magic realism and poetry. It seems only fitting that even as they move into a more pragmatic and traditional narrative structure, they should maintain a tantalizingly blurred line between reality and their dreamscapes.

With this movie, the brothers have been given a giant coloring book. While both write and produce, Mark directs and Michael acts (here he plays a stumbling FBI agent) and for the most part, they attempt to stay within the lines. But it's in the few moments when they go outside those lines that the movie momentarily soars.

A weary but heroic man wearing a retro spacesuit astride a horse?


"The Astronaut Farmer." MPAA-rating: PG for thematic material, peril and language. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In general release.

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