Fly Me to the Moon

In 2003, Mark and Michael Polish made Northfork, an underappreciated, little-seen masterpiece about a town about to drown and the arrival of four freak-show strangers seeking the Unknown Angel, who may be a dying little boy being kept alive by a grizzled preacher played by Nick Nolte. The Polish brothers, softies with a solid touch, doled out mystery and magic, for which they were rewarded with a deal with Warner Bros., some real dough ($13 million) and the chance to make a fairy tale set not in the netherworld but in this one.

That movie, The Astronaut Farmer, may alienate fans of the brothers’ earlier work (which also includes Twin Falls, Idaho), who might scoff at the cornpone sentimentality that permeates its every second. But those who do turn up their noses at this story of a former astronaut who still dreams of space travel and inspires his family with his indefatigable spirit will miss out, because The Astronaut Farmer remains very much in line with the Polishes’ earlier work. It’s still a fairy tale.

Billy Bob Thornton, finally leaving the drunken shit-heel parts that have defined his recent filmography, is the title character, Charlie Farmer, who long ago abandoned NASA for reasons that become clear late in the film. Charlie, whose sour poker face obscures a deep-seated ache, lives in a mythical West Texas where desert dunes and farmland prairies exist side by side beneath blinding blue skies. Even the name of his hometown, Story, suggests something from a bedtime tale.

When first we see Charlie, he’s riding on horseback in full astronaut suit, as though he has just stepped off the set of The Right Stuff. No one judges, though. In fact, his son’s teacher thinks he’s a real role model, a parent willing to play dress-up to spur kids’ imaginations. But Charlie’s fantasy about flying into outer space collides with a harsh reality: His dream is about to bankrupt his family, and the bank is about to repossess his home.

Charlie has spent every penny on the shiny, towering spaceship he’s been building from junkyard parts in his barn. One day the FBI and the FAA come calling, fearing that Charlie is working on a weapon. The media descend upon the farm, and Charlie’s old astronaut buddy (Bruce Willis in an unbilled cameo) comes to offer Charlie a ride on the space shuttle if he’s willing to abandon his fool’s errand. Charlie isn’t about to give in, lest he look like a failure in the eyes of the teenage son and two younger daughters, who imagine going to the moon with their pa.

There is no denying that this is male-weep y Field of Dreams territory. But it works, precisely because it is bereft of the cynicism that pervades even today’s best-intentioned kiddie films. It’s old-fashioned, sweet and unabashedly earnest, and it has the skill and sincerity to break a grown man’s heart. Is that too corny?

Categories: Movies