by Corey Hall
It's only February, and already we're blessed with the most ridiculous high-concept premise likely to hit screens all year: Billy Bob Thornton builds a rocket ship in his barn.
No really, he constructs an entirely functional, full-scale Mercury-style rocket on his downtime from tending to his sprawling Texas ranch.
Thornton slips on a space suit and his most earnest smile to star as the conveniently named Charlie Farmer, a former NASA candidate who had to abandon the stars to rescue the family farm. Of course big dreams die hard, so despite the concerns of friends, the government and rules of logic, he can't be dissuaded from reaching for the cosmos. Oblivious to the plight of the independent American farmer, and since Willie Nelson apparently doesn't just hand out checks for 10,000 gallons of high-grade fuel, he's mortgaged the farm into near oblivion and now the bank is eager to foreclose on him.
Though the neighbors, the press and the feds think he's completely off his nut, Charlie gets plenty of moral support from his loving family, who pretty much kiss the dirt his moon boots trod on. For the second time this week Virginia Madsen plays the dutiful wife (See also: Number 23), cooking, cleaning and gently stoking the fires of her man's insane passion as if that were the sole task she was born for. It's a criminal waste of talent. Madsen is all comforting softness and humility, hiding her smoldering MILF hotness under an aw-shucks, plain-Jane bushel basket. Better use is made of dependably eccentric character actors like J.K Simmons, Tim Blake Nelson and the ever strange Bruce Dern. Bruce Willis briefly drops in to lend advice, model a snazzy toupee, and to cock his head in bemusement at Billy Bob, as a friendly former astronaut. They all do their level best to tether the storyline to something likable and real, but it just keeps floating off into its own terminally kooky orbit.
The Polish brothers (twins Mark and Michael) made earnest American gothic indies, such as the profoundly weird Northfork and their latest is almost as willfully loopy, but it's a lot more amiable and crowd-pleasing. The nose cone isn't the only thing that's retrograde about The Astronaut Farmer, which holds fast to its old school, Capra corn cheesy "Follow your Dreams" ethos, no matter what mental gymnastics are required to keep it on the level.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.