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Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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Despite its cliches, The Astronaut Farmer is a good yarn about a man with a mission and a family who willing to back him up.

At first it feels like we’ve seen parts of The Astronaut Farmer in other films. We’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, with their peeks at the heroes’ accomplishments and backstage lives. We’ve seen Ray, where one person pursues his dream despite the effects it has on the people around him.

Here, Virginia Madsen plays the familiar figure of the sympathetic and self-sacrificing wife, Audie, to Billy Bob Thornton’s astronaut-wannabe, Charlie Farmer, a farmer who happens to have spent the past several years perfecting a rocket in his back yard in Texas and has decided it’s high time to launch it. The less-ambitious townsfolk, naturally, think he’s nuts, yet his wife and kids stand by him — even if the wife’s not quite as sure he’ll really get into orbit (and is afraid of his not coming back if he does).

But what follows in this tale of one man’s mission is not just a dream-come-true story but something with a texture and beauty all its own.

Blast Off

The folksy tone of this small-town drama threatens to get Mayberry-cute in a hurry, but the story’s trajectory takes a turn when Farmer orders ten thousand gallons of high-grade rocket fuel. This flips a switch with the FBI, who assume he’s building a missile. The Feebs swarm around his ranch in their kajillion black luxury cars and SUVs (I do believe the carmaker is a likely source of some of the financing for this film), and the media pitch their circus tents in the same field shortly thereafter.

Farmer heeds the advice, “make the media your friend.” He throws open his doors, giving tours of the rocketship lab with the rocket right there. Yet although his goals are lofty, Farmer harbors a few sins of his own, like neglecting to mention to his everloving and hardworking wife that the family ranch that was handed down to them is almost in foreclosure, to the tune of more than half a million dollars.

It comes out that Farmer had been in the running to become an astronaut when his father fell ill; he left the program to be with his dad. Bruce Willis has a decent cameo as an old buddy who’s made Colonel and who not only checks in on his old Air Force pal but also checks up on Farmer’s mental health for himself, in preparation for the hearing that will decide whether Farmer will be allowed to pursue his personal mission. After dinner with Charlie and his family, the Colonel sees that the farmer has in fact built himself a precision machine in this big wooden barn out back of his house, and he laughs uproariously. Of course, the next time we see the Colonel he’s facing him down from the center of a draped table between a phalanx of other officers (that they are in a high school gymnasium dampens their authority only slightly), getting ready to throw the book at him for daring to go outside official channels to get to space.

Farmer Tom to Ground Control

I am a sucker for dreamers like Farmer. He just believes space is still free and every single person is eligible to take a ride all the way out — and back — if they can just figure out how to get there. And this guy is sure he can. Farmer has even filed his flight plan and rocket specs with the FAA, who never write him back, figuring him for another kook with a set of detailed drawings (never guessing the part about the actual rocketship in the barn).

Many dark days follow, as do some plot wild cards (those too-convenient coincidences), like the barely-hanging-on thread involving Bruce Dern as Grandpa that rescues them from one of their potential sources of ruin. Yet they’ve got a tough row to hoe, the dreaming Farmer family. With all the attention comes scrutiny, and suddenly everyone’s either taking or making bets. Social services is breathing down their necks (from the social worker’s perspective Charlie has “brainwashed” his family). It’s different at home for the family: they really do love and believe in father, because he has insisted on believing in himself all along. Even after the Colonel tries to rebuke him, chiding him for having quit the astronaut program to be at his dying father’s bedside, “That was a test. When you went home to your father, you failed that test,” Farmer persists in his plans and dreams. The man really wants to get away.

Baby, You’re a Star

I felt something was going to go terribly wrong the moment I saw him hunched over his own homegrown formulation for rocket fuel, and indeed, things do go off in unexpected directions, bringing on more difficulties.

But, true to the adventure genre, an amazing comeback rights the world and puts everything in perspective. Cheesy as some of The Astronaut Farmer’s devices may be, the story captures the magic of seeing the Earth from space and makes it seem a truly wondrous achievement. I’d guess the FAA hates this film with a passion and fears it will spawn a wave of imitators.

One of my favorite books is The Home Planet. It is a collection of images of the Earth from space alongside quotes from men and women of all nationalities who have been out into space and seen the earth from afar. It is one of the most inspiring things to look at and read, somehow — there’s something inexplicably transforming about being able to share that view of our planet. It’s not only being a smaller component of the universe than you had thought; there’s something more profound going on. (Births are mysterious in the same way, in inspiring that explosion of amazement in everyone when that baby comes out into the air for the first time.)

In addition to reminding us of the profundities posed by the vast universe, it is the texture of the family’s life in the town and at home that carries The Astronaut Farmer’s dream to its conclusion. Not only Charlie Farmer but all of the characters believe in themselves, from the loan officer trying to commiserate with the increasingly infuriated Charlie’s wife about how high in the sky her husband’s head is to the former sweetheart and school psychologist in cat-eye glasses who starts her evaluation of Charlie’s mental health with, “Isn’t it a little late to diagnose this as crazy?” and ends it by screaming at him, “Your rocket is not going to bring you a happy childhood!” Scenes featuring the three children are funny and sweet while never stooping to TV-style cuteness.

No, Honey, I’m Not So Happy to See You

Like the spousal battles in Ray, however, I found the fights between Charlie and his wife all too familiar yet oddly devoid of any suspense: Madsen’s character is so sympathetic and supportive that I could not believe she would ever leave his side. But where the wedge between Ray Charles and his wife was drugs and womanizing, Charlie’s is his rocket, for which when they’re looking for a name for it his Hispanic helper quickly says “la Otra Mujer,” the Other Woman.

As its title hints, The Astronaut Farmer gets off the ground in the end after a few bumps; the thrill of riding alongside him makes it all worthwhile. I left the theater saying, “There oughta be more movies like that!” The voyage to space is one I wish we all could take, but this imperfect but delightful film will do for now.