How much you're going to like this gentle, whimsical family film may depend upon how much you can suspend your disbelief and accept it as a metaphorical fantasy, along the lines of "Field of Dreams," rather than as a straightforward, true-to-life drama. Taken in the right spirit, "The Astronaut Farmer" is a delightful little picture.
I suppose, too, that one's appreciation of the film hangs on accepting Billy Bob Thornton in the title role. Fortunately, he's the best part of the show. Just don't expect the old, raucous, outgoing Billy Bob. This time his character is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken fellow, and in this quiet, laid-back way Thornton is just as humorous as ever.
The opening shot of Billy Bob as the Texas rancher Charles Farmer on horseback at his ranch picking up a stray calf, all the while wearing an astronaut's space suit perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. We know from the cinematography that we're in for grand, wide-open spaces and from Billy Bob's outfit that we're getting something out of the ordinary. Yet it is not an entirely quirky film just out to be cutesy or silly. It turns out, Farmer is actually on his way to his daughter's school, where he is demonstrating to the children of her class what an astronaut wears in outer space. The movie is goofy, yes, but the goofiness always has a purpose; it's a bit spacey, but it's also got a solid foot on the ground.
Here's the thing: Farmer graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering, became an Air Force jet pilot, and was in training to become an astronaut when he had to quit because his father died. Ever since, he has wanted to go into space, so he decides to build a rocket ship in his barn and launch it (and him) into orbit around the Earth. His neighbors think he's nuts. His family--wife Audie (Virginia Madsen), teenage son Shepard (Max Thieriot), and daughters Stanley and Sunshine (Joseph and Logan Polish)--at least half believe him.
As I say, you'd better not take the film too literally. No one is going to build a full-blown rocket ship in his barn, let alone actually fly it. But like the film's main character, if you think you can, you can. That's the point. People need to pursue their goals, and to Farmer, getting into space is his ambition, his objective, his obsession, and sometimes you've got to pursue those aspirations no matter how unrealistic they may seem to others. It takes Farmer's family a while to realize this, but Farmer never lets go of his dream.
Farmer doesn't let go even when the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and land for defaulting on twenty loan extensions; even when a judge orders he undergo a psychiatric evaluation; not even when the government decides to shut down his whole operation by sending out the FBI. Well, the only thing that results from that is Farmer getting international publicity.
"The Astronaut Farmer" is quite an appealing, likeable film, with Thornton showing us a shy, Kevin Costner-like smile from time to time to remind us that we shouldn't take life too seriously if we want to get where we're going. Then, there's Bruce Dern as Farmer's father-in-law; Tim Blake Nelson as Farmer's lawyer; a surprise, uncredited appearance from one of Thornton's old "Armageddon" co-stars to shore things up further; and a cameo from Jay Leno to add some verisimilitude.
The result is a charming and, dare I say it, inspirational movie, all about the little man versus the indomitable system, with the little man having a fighting chance. Yes, I liked it a lot.
Warner Bros. offer the movie in two screen formats, an original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 on one side of the disc and a 1.33:1 version on the flip side. Since a measurement of the pan-and-scan version revealed that it cut off close to half the image right and left, I had no interest in watching any more of it than I had to and quickly settled into watching the widescreen version.
The widescreen stretches to dimensions of about 2.25:1 across my Sony TV, which is pretty good, and the anamorphic transfer, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, helps to stabilize the picture. However, maybe because Warner Bros. didn't want to spend any more money on the DVD than they had to, they gave it only a very average bit rate, resulting in very average video quality in terms of color depth and definition. Nevertheless, the hues are natural enough, and the screen is free of any grain that probably wasn't inherent to the original print.
The sound engineers render the audio via Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction, and the best that one can say about it is that it's quiet and smooth and displays a natural tonal balance. Beyond that, the sound is as ordinary as the video, with a modest front-channel stereo spread, limited frequency response and dynamics, and very little rear-channel bloom. There's nothing wrong with any of it, mind you; it's just not too exciting in any way, nor does it need to be.
The main attraction here is a twenty-eight-minute featurette, "How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer." It's a usual behind-the-scenes piece of business, with cast and crew comments interspersed with quotations from real-life astronauts. After that we get about eight minutes of bloopers and outtakes, some of them pretty funny. Finally, there is a two-minute conversation with NASA astronaut David Scott, who reminds us that we should accept the film as the flight of fancy its makers intended.
The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
It's hard not to like this goofy little film, directed by Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot," "Northfork"), who co-wrote it with his brother Mark. "The Astronaut Farmer" may take its time about things, moving along at a leisurely pace, but almost the whole 104 minutes we spend with its characters are well worth it. We don't get many movies of this kind anymore, an old-fashioned Jimmy Stewart-type affair that's engaging and uplifting for young and old.