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Space Cadet

"The Astronaut Farmer" investigates a guy who wants to go orbital on us.

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The Astronaut Farmer" is about a fictitious Texas man who builds his own rocket in his barn. With its uplifting tale of dreams and a soaring score to go with them, it could easily be dismissed as sentimental pap, a "Forrest Gump" fantasy crowd-pleaser about a guy who wants to go orbital on us. But some below-the-surface commentary leaves room for thought. It has some strange ideas in it.

The movie begins in the present with Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher who rides off to rescue stray calves in a space suit and helmet by day and tinkers with a gigantic rocket ship in his garage by night. Charlie was one of the original astronauts. Kind of like the fifth Beatle, he ended up dropping out before the big shows to take care of the family farm, all the while maintaining his dream of space flight by painstakingly re-creating a bolt-for-bolt replica of the original.

Everyone outside his family thinks he's nuts, of course. Even his friend, a fellow astronaut (Bruce Willis), is against the idea. If Charlie's commitment to his family during the space program was a test, he tells Charlie, "You failed." When Charlie tries to buy rocket fuel, the FBI swoops in with a fleet of black Cadillacs. The FAA wants him grounded too, lest he make the organization look silly. Charlie, inveighing against a perceived national war on dreams, won't back down.

"Farmer" ends up in a standard showdown between the stodgy bureaucrats and the lone man fighting for what's right. The movie reaches Disneyesque levels of heartwarmingness along the way, but there's also a curious aftertaste in all the sweetness. For one thing, why do women keep asking Charlie's wife how big his rocket is and if they can take a look at it? And it's not just a crass joke to say the government wants to come in and cut Charlie's rocket off.

Whenever one of the agents' cell phones rings, the tune is Darth Vader's theme from "Star Wars." But the message is mixed when Farmer beats the law and foreclosure by turning his rocket into something like a vertical NASCAR vehicle. The movie brushes up against disturbing facts of our time — it even directly mentions the Patriot Act. "The Astronaut Farmer" is strange. You may be tempted to pick it apart like some Douglas Sirk melodrama from the '50s. But you may also be tempted to do some unauthorized dreaming of your own, eyes closed and all. (PG) 104 min. ** S

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