The Astronaut Farmer
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is a Texas rancher who left NASA years ago to care for his family when his father died. Years later, Farmer, a small-town resident and married father of three, keeps his space dreams alive by building a rocket in his barn and planning a long-overdue orbit of the earth.
Problems arise when he tries to buy the 10,000 pounds of fuel to get his dream off the ground. He's already overdrawn on his many previous loans used to build the rocket, and his longsuffering banker friend threatens to finally foreclose on the family farm. Then, on the eve of his launch, the government learns of his attempt to purchase such a large quantity of fuel, and shows up en masse to investigate his intentions.
If only the movie's problems were this simple.
The first issue is believability. Sure the plot is far-fetched—but somewhat endearingly so. I showed up with a willing suspension of disbelief, expecting the writers and actors to attempt to give the plot a leg to stand on within the first 10 to 20 minutes of the film. And while we learn that Farmer got his rocket parts from a nearby NASA junkyard, we never learn how this astronaut dropout acquired the skills to assemble a working spacecraft. We never see him train for his coming trip into space. Heck, we never even see this Texas rancher attend to his farm. Mostly we see him brood about complaining that the government is trampling on his dream.
The Astronaut Farmer also pulls out just about every small town and government worker stereotype in the book. There's the aw-shucks, sideburned cop named Chopper. The colorful judge who demands that Farmer have a psych evaluation by none other than the high school nurse, a dottering former flame of Farmer's who dispenses the helpful wisdom that people are like onions and that his pent-up childhood anger can't fuel his rocket. The CIA, FBI, and FAA guys all screech onto the Farmer property simultaneously in their matching black SUVs and government-issue sunglasses. They're all incredibly narrow-minded and a bit bumbling.
Thankfully, Farmer's local lawyer friend has a Big Time Lawyer friend in Manhattan, who "just happens to specialize in cases like this." He counsels them to use the media to their advantage. In an amazing bit of timing, the media all show up the following day at precisely the same moment, cameras and tape recorders rolling. Though neither they nor the government have inspected Farmer's rocket, and all they can really confirm is that the man attempted to buy a boatload of fuel, these reporters have deemed Farmer a small town hero—a dreamer to inspire us all. In a media frenzy that would make Paris Hilton envious, within hours Farmer is a national hero, gracing T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards, and Jay Leno monologues.
Throughout the ordeal, Farmer's family serves as both morale boosters and mission control. His teenaged son, Shepherd (Max Thieriot), who's apparently an engineering genius, helped him build the rocket. His young giggly daughters happily eat "planetary pancakes" and eventually don flippers and floaties to help Dad train at the local pool. Farmer's wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), a diner waitress, offers admirable unconditional support—wavering understandably when it looks like they might lose their home. After a heated discussion about what his dream might cost the family, all concerns seem eclipsed by the notion that he must persevere to show their kids that you never give up on a dream.