The Astronaut Farmer

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This review was written for the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of "The Astronaut Farmer."

MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- Departing from the dark, twisted sensibility of their feature "Twin Falls Idaho," in which Mark and Michael Polish seemed to have channeled the Coen brothers and a dash of David Lynch, the duo's latest effort, "The Astronaut Farmer," is goofy, wholesome and, well, sweet. Despite some droll humor and on-target political jabs delivered deadpan by a uniformly strong cast, "Astronaut" often is too corny for its own good; it could have used more of those zingy lines.

Shot in 33 days for $13 million, a markedly larger budget than they have worked with before, the Polishes do a lot with a little by Hollywood standards to make a polished, mainstream, thoroughly quirky family entertainment. (The brothers collaborated on the script; Michael Polish directed.) If marketed properly, it could be a solid boxoffice draw for families, especially those with small children. It will have a one-week run at the end of the year to qualify for Oscar consideration, and a wider theatrical release is scheduled for early next year.

An ambling pace bogs down this archetypal albeit predictable story about Charlie Farmer (played with sunny optimism by pitch-perfect Billy Bob Thornton), who is indeed a small-town farmer and a charming oddball. Against all odds and the laws of gravity, Charlie achieves his impossible dream: He launches into space in a homemade rocket he built in his barn.

Adults craving more challenging content will be out of luck, but even for those who don't wholly buy into the film's "if we don't have our dreams, we have nothing" ethos, there are many small pleasures to savor. Bruce Willis, looking heroic in a leather bomber jacket, makes a stylish appearance in a small role as Farmer's old buddy, a space shuttle commander.

Thornton, eminently watchable throughout, even while orbiting around Earth -- the CG effects are well done here -- gives a wry, warm performance as a beautiful loser, a disappointed former military pilot and would-be astronaut who dropped out of the space program before he got his space shot. The actor, with his gentle Southern twang, embodies the character's humanity, dogged determination and basic goodness without winking at the audience.

Virginia Madsen is radiant as the supportive, long-suffering wife of a dreamer who drives his family into debt and makes them the object of ridicule. It's a thankless role, but Madsen makes the most of it.

Veteran J.K. Simmons does his evil best as the heavy, the head of the FAA -- or the Dream Police, as one tabloid labels the agency -- who stands between Charlie and liftoff.

Cinematographer M. David Mullen does wonders with New Mexico's light and dazzling sunsets, evoking the romance and bleakness of the Southwest. As Elton John's "Rocket Man" plays under the final credits, the ubiquitous Jay Leno does a mock interview with Farmer. It's a graceful parting touch.

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