I think Billy Bob Thornton is one of the best actors working today. He too often falls back on his comfortable grumpy-drunk-guy persona in movies like Bad News Bears and Bad Santa, but when he breaks free of his tried and true tricks the results can be impressive. In the new movie from filmdom’s only twin co-directing siblings, The Polish Brothers, Thornton hands in a moving and inspirational performance as a man with his head quite literally in the clouds.
Charlie Farmer (Thornton) is an engaging eccentric, an inspirational American folk hero who won’t let anything stand between him and his dreams. A former NASA employee, he had to leave the astronaut program to run his family’s farm after the death of his father. An engineer by trade, he ran the cattle farm by day and by night built a giant rocket ship in his barn. Framer may have left NASA but his dreams of visiting outer space didn’t stop there. Farmer, his wife, (another supportive wife role for Virginia Madsen), and children become media darlings when the FBI swoop down on his operation, looking for WMDs and leak the story to the press.
The Astronaut Farmer works on several levels. The Polish Brothers have stepped out from behind the art house veneer that informed their past work to make a film that has one foot in the mainstream, but doesn’t betray their roots. The movie is beautiful to look at, with a soft glow that feels timeless and nostalgic, but is also subversive.
When asked “Mr. Farmer, how do we know you aren’t constructing a WMD?” by a NASA Committee Member, Farmer replies, “Sir, if I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” with a cutting charm that wouldn’t be out of place in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The Astronaut Farmer is a warm family film that breathes new life into the hoary old “follow your dreams” storyline.