It's Not Rocket Science

Boulder Weekly | February 26, 2007
It’s not rocket science

By Thomas Delapa

It’s one small step for bogus Americana, one giant leap backwards for the American independent cinema.

Roger that, Houston, I’m talking about The Astronaut Farmer, a sputtering retro rocket that takes off on October Sky and crash-lands into a Field of Dreams. The motto of filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish must be, “If you plant a cornball drama in Texas, they will come.”

Made independently by the Polish brothers (Twin Falls, Idaho) and launched by Warner Bros., The Astronaut Farmer stars Billy Bob Thornton as a wacky backyard inventor whose lofty impossible dream is to orbit the Earth in his own spaceship. The only thing standing between Charles Farmer and the right stuff is a galaxy of pointy-headed feds who represent our country’s horribly oppressive nanny government.

A right-wing, cut-rate version of the Coen brothers, the Polishes (both write the script; Michael directs) push every hot button by pandering to Bush/Reagan-era “government is the problem” conservatism. Farmer Charles’ loyal, supportive wife (Virginia Madsen) is a visitor from the Father Knows Best planet. She stands by her man, even if his crazy plan might cost them their farm.

Like a noxious weed, the U.S. government creeps into the picture when Farmer goes shopping for 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel. The FBI, CIA, FAA and other nasty acronyms gang up to ground Farmer, who’s a volatile, salt-of-the-earth cross between Jimmy Stewart and Timothy McVeigh. Once word leaks out of Farmer’s starry-eyed quest, all the eyes of Texas—and the world—are upon him.

Everything about the Polishes’ script is cursory and shorthand as it takes aim with a payload of libertarian talking points. Not only does the Farmer family live in an idealized small-town Texas, but the pater familias delights in home-schooling his kids as his mission-control lackeys. In town, a heartless banker threatens to scrub Farmer’s mission by repossessing his farm.

On his launching pad of dreams tucked inside his barn, Farmer builds a 50-foot rocket ship that looks alarmingly like an old ICBM missile. If I were living next to this guy, I’d either put a call into Homeland Security or the nuthouse.

In the Polishes’ shabby script, plot details are planted, watered and left to rot. When Farmer blasts off in his first attempt, the rocket (minus its pilot) zooms off into the Texas prairie at supersonic speeds rivaling the Road Runner. If it ended up going ballistic into Crawford or Waco, nobody’s telling.

Despite Farmer’s botched and potentially cataclysmic misfire, we’re still supposed to root for him to make good on his potted dreams. The Polishes harvest another all-American cliché with Farmer’s comeback to his naysayers: “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” Say amen, somebody.

Astoundingly barren in irony or humor, The Astronaut Farmer orbits with 2006’s Lady in the Water as one of the cheesiest studio releases in years. Earth to the Polish brothers: Dig this, you’ve got the wrong stuff.


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