February 23, 2007

Review: ‘Astronaut Farmer’ Plummets to Earth

By Claudia Puig

In most cases, doggedly pursuing a dream is laudable.

But if it does nothing else, The Astronaut Farmer demonstrates that not every dream is worth pursuing. At least not the belabored one of a narcissistic crackpot masquerading as an admirable dreamer.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the farmer and would-be astronaut, conveniently named Charlie Farmer. (The ditzy but well-meaning town shrink is cloyingly named Nurse Good.) Despite those monikers, this is neither a satire nor an allegory. It's an infuriating and formulaic attempt at inspirational drama that panders so appallingly to an American audience hungry for uplifting tales of derring-do that it feels insulting from start to finish.

You can't help but lament Thornton's past predilection for dark, edgy fare as he lumbers through this dreck. His acting choices of late seem light-years away from his quirky roles in Slingblade or Bad Santa. Astronaut's unappealing self-promoter is closer in spirit to the lame-brained con man in School for Scoundrels.

Farmer is a former Air Force man who blows through $600,000 in loans, nearly loses his house, squanders the support of his family and jeopardizes the safety of his neighbors just so he can orbit the Earth in his homemade rocket.

Unlike those who work for bona fide space exploration efforts that gather scientific data and knowledge, Farmer seems to want to go to space simply because "it's there." Meanwhile, his children face homelessness. Virginia Madsen makes her second bad career choice of the week as his mystifyingly patient wife. (She portrays a similarly supportive spouse in The Number 23 to a psycho played by Jim Carrey.)

The story unfolds predictably: Naysayers abound, the government steps in and its officials are either bumbling fools or unfeeling obstructionists. They even trot out the biggest of the biggest guns: Bruce Willis as a former astronaut who tries to talk sense into the spacey rocket man.

Hollywood seems to be telling us that a selfish quest is better than no quest at all. But perseverance for its own sake is not always a wholly admirable thing -- particularly when it places innocent people in jeopardy. The Astronaut Farmer should be grounded for the twisted lesson it tries to impart. <>