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‘Astronaut Farmer’ fails to launch

Film feels like ‘Field of Dreams’ without the magic or the heart. By John Hartl

The Polish brothers’ spacey new oddity, “The Astronaut Farmer,” suggests “Field of Dreams” without the fantasy elements.

It’s a jarring omission, and the filmmakers never manage to substitute anything that feels essential. “If you build it, he will come” makes a kind of sense in its original context, but the notion fails to connect to a more realistic tale of a stubborn farmer who risks bankruptcy (and the lives of dozens of bystanders) by building a functioning rocketship in his barn.

Indeed, Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) comes off as an irresponsible nutcase, a close cousin to the deadbeat karaoke cowboy Jon Gries played in the Polish brothers’ equally tone-deaf 2001 movie, “Jackpot.” The filmmakers clearly have a soft spot for lovable losers, but they need to make a stronger case for the “lovable” part.

Farmer always wanted to be an astronaut, and he was headed in that direction when he earned a degree in aerospace engineering and became an Air Force pilot. Forced to drop out, he retired to a Texas ranch, where he and his wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) raised three kids—one of them, teenaged Shepard (Max Thieriot), a budding engineer who helps his father prepare to launch.

As Thornton plays him, Charlie never seems obsessive enough to pull off this stunt, and he lacks the hustler’s charm that could carry him over the finish line. While Charlie owes $600,000 to the bank, which is threatening to kick him off his land, nothing really happens until he orders 10,000 gallons of high-grade fuel and a couple of comic-relief FBI agents show up to investigate.

Then CNN and the FAA arrive, an astronaut colleague (Bruce Willis) turns up, the place is overrun by a carnival, and Charlie somehow comes up with the money to buy one of the rides for his kids. The economics of the story never add up, even when an inheritance conveniently bails out the family at a crucial point. Would a few hundred thousand dollars really finance a round trip to the edge of space?

The director, Michael Polish, lingers just long enough to allow questions like this to surface and nag. He and his brother, Mark, take credit for the script, which occasionally flirts with political satire (“If I was hiding a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” Charlie tells a government official). More often it sticks to convention; it’s neither as loopy as their last picture, “Northfork” (2003), nor as challenging as their first and best film, “Twin Falls, Idaho” (1999).

Just as “Field of Dreams” eventually turned into a weepy father-son drama, “The Astronaut Farmer” tries to persuade the audience to invest heavily in the relationships between Audie and her ailing father (Bruce Dern) and between Charlie and his children (who get more cute-kid closeups than you’ll find in most Disney movies).

Thieriot and Madsen do generate the kind of intensity that Thornton’s performance lacks. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t come up with enough scenes that would sufficiently flesh out their family ties.