[Screen It]

(2007) (Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen) (PG)

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Drama: A former astronaut must face and overcome various obstacles as he tries to launch his own rocket into orbit.
Charles Farmer (BILLY BOB THORNTON) was once an aspiring astronaut with dreams of traveling into Earth's orbit. A family situation, however, forced him to leave the agency and now he's a farmer living with his supportive wife Audie (VIRGINIA MADSEN) and their three kids, teenager Shepard (MAX THIERIOT) and his younger sisters Sunshine (LOGAN POLISH) and Stanley (JASPER POLISH). Audie's father, Hal (BRUCE DERN), also lives with them.

Yet, Charles can't get the thought of outer space out of his blood, so he's taken matters into his own hands by building his own rocket in his barn. His passion, however, has not only put a partial strain on his marriage, but also a greater one on the family finances.

Things get even worse when a variety of federal officials show up once they get wind of his rocket building. Fearing that he's potentially a terrorist, the likes of FAA Head Honcho Jacobson (J.K. SIMMONS), FBI Agents Killbourne (JON GRIES) and Mathis (MARK POLISH), and a host of others descend upon his farm and the nearby small town. Even a current astronaut (BRUCE WILLIS) shows up to try to convince Charles that the feds won't let him fly.

Undeterred, but needing help, Charles contacts local lawyer Kevin Munchak (TIM BLAKE NELSON) who makes a few calls, resulting in the press also showing up. From that point on, and with money running out and family tensions mounting, Charles must overcome a variety of obstacles as he tries to pursue his goal of launching himself into orbit.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
One of the more heartbreaking moments in Ron Howard's terrific "Apollo 13" is when Tom Hanks and his crew realize they won't get the chance to land on the moon -- despite getting tantalizing close -- and may never again, especially after the in-flight problems they've had.

Of course, at least the real-life Jim Lovell and his crew did make it into outer space, a statistical rarity considering how few men and women have spent time in Earth's orbit. After all, who knows how many boys and girls have dreamed of becoming astronauts ever since President Kennedy made his space race proclamation and NASA answered those many years later by putting Neil Armstrong on the moon.

And among all of those who've trained to leave Earth, only a fraction actually get the chance. Like Lovell and company, it must be terribly frustrating to get so close and never be able to experience lift-off, the flight into orbit, and then looking down on Earth and seeing how small it really is.

For Charles Farmer, his astronaut dreams were cut short when family circumstances forced him to leave the agency. Now working as a farmer with a loving and supportive family, the outer space bug still burns within him. Accordingly, he's been building his own Apollo style rocket in his barn and plans to launch himself into orbit as soon as possible. However, he must overcome a variety of obstacles to do so, no small feat considering he's both the engineer and commanding pilot, while his 15-year-old son will serve as his mission flight controller.

Thus is the gist of "The Astronaut Farmer," a fairly engaging if somewhat flawed piece of literal and figurative escapist entertainment from an unlikely directorial duo, siblings Mark Polish & Michael Polish who've previously helmed critically acclaimed but barely seen art house pics such as "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Northfork."

Something of a companion piece to 2000's "Space Cowboys," the film features Billy Bob Thornton as the unlikely astronaut who wants to get in a few laps around the big blue orb. Fittingly enough considering how space travel is evolving, the brothers Polish script focuses on the entrepreneurial angle of lifting off, and utilizes the underdog playbook in pitting the determined little guy against the establishment and other obstacles in his way.

The drawback, of course, to such formulaic conventions is that very little of what develops comes as a surprise. While we might not be able to anticipate the exact particulars, you automatically know money's going to be an issue, martial tension will grow, the press will show up and turn everything into a media circus, and the feds will try to shut down the homegrown space enterprise.

With that as a given, there's still the possibility that with the right touch, the cast and crew can nevertheless make the film an entertaining venture. For the most part, they succeed, but only moderately so and only if everything is taken with a grain of salt mixed in with the obligatory suspension of disbelief needed to buy into everything that occurs.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that while it takes NASA thousands of employees and billions of dollars to shoot most anything off into space (especially when people are on board), Billy Bob Thornton as the protagonist can do it with what he has sitting around in the barn and with only the help of his father-in-law (Bruce Dern) and 15-year-old son (Max Thierliot). Of course, he has the loving support of Virginia Madsen as his by-your-side wife, so I guess that makes up for some of the various omissions and gaps in support staff and budget.

I know, it's all something of a fantasy piece, but even within that context, things should come off as believable and thus not take the viewer out of the proceedings to question how such matters could be possible. In lieu of some simple script tweaks to fix that, the Polish boys mix in little bits of humor and quirkiness to the otherwise straightforward drama (that occasionally goes a bit deeper than expected with thematic talk of the long-lasting effects of a past paternal suicide, a family death, and such).

Within the confines of their roles, Thornton and Madsen are generally fine, but supporting performances -- from the likes of Bruce Willis, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, and Jon Cries and Mark Polish himself doing the stereotypically comedic federal agent bit -- are a mixed bag due to being played all across the board and spectrum of acting styles.

Notwithstanding, that, the result is moderately entertaining, more so in the first half before things start straining credibility and/or get too goofy for its own good. Nevertheless, once the protagonist and his rocket manage to take flight (you really didn't expect him to fail, now did you), the film manages to both capture and exude some of that space flight magic that once enthralled TV spectators around the world so many decades ago. While it could have used some additional thrust and a better flight plan, "The Astronaut Farmer" is good enough to warrant a 5.5 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed January 22, 2007 / Posted February 23, 2007

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