I wasn't sure I'd be able to convey the special idiocy of The Astronaut Farmer until I remembered an old radio skit by Bob and Ray. The movie is about a rancher named Farmer who builds his own rocket to fulfill his dream of orbiting the earth. In the radio skit, the roving reporter Wally Ballou interviews a man who plans to build his own tunnel beneath the Hudson River. He's doing this, he explains, because he's tired of paying tolls to go in and out of Manhattan. But - Wally asks -- isn't building a tunnel like that hard? "Not really," the guy replies. "What you do is get a shovel, dig down for a while and then dig straight out." The movie's hero, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is the space-cadet soul mate of that amateur sandhog. The difference between the movie and the radio skit is that the movie takes its subject seriously.
Really seriously - it's all about uplift. Charles Farmer isn't supposed to be a space cadet. In the shopworn tradition of Frank Capra, Farmer is supposed to be a little guy with a big dream and a bigger heart, a guy who puts himself and his loving family through some difficult times, but still a with a can-do spirit who becomes a national hero because he won't let anyone stand in the way of his dream, not even if it means taking on those heartless bigwigs in Washington.
From the very first shot -- an astronaut on horseback beneath a vast Western sky it's clear that the movie will be, for better or worse, something special. Maybe the rider is crazy, a cowboy with a thing for Buzz Lightyear. But there's a shiny silver rocket standing on its tailfins in his barn. So maybe he's a crackpot tinkerer who actually believes that his home-made space ship can break the surly bonds of earth.
But no, this is Billy Bob Thornton, a specialist at playing guys who are eccentric but perfectly sane. And the director, Michael Polish, and his writing partner (and twin brother) Mark Polish, want us to understand that Charles Farmer has the right stuff. As an aerospace engineer and former Air Force pilot, Farmer was on his way to becoming an astronaut until tragedy struck. When one of Farmer's astronaut buddies comes to check out the project he's played by an uncredited Bruce Willis - he takes one look at the rocket and says, apparently on the strength of its shininess, "You built this thing? That is some serious engineering!"
This movie soars beyond the misinformation belt into the vacuous realm of misinspiration. No one asks logical questions about anything but money, of which Farmer has woefully little. His clueless wife, Audie, played by Virginia Madsen, has bought completely into his insanity (which is supposed to be wisdom). When things go spectacularly wrong Audie starts to lose faith, but she finally sees the light and declares, in one of the dumbhead classic lines of all time, "Without the rocket we're just a dysfunctional family!"
Well, with the rocket they're just props for a preposterous premise. And the oddest thing about this very odd movie is that it doesn't know what to make of itself. Here it is peddling faith, perseverance and family values as the basic ingredients of Farmer's climactic blast-off. Yet bogus uplift gives way to genuine downdraft in a coda that finds the hero chatting casually with Jay Leno. Suddenly the astronaut Farmer is just sly old Billy Bob doing one more guest shot on the Tonight Show. That's a new definition of weightlessness.