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The Astronaut Farmer

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In its first scene, Michael Polish's oddball charmer telegraphs that it isn't going to be a typical underdog-and-his-dreams story: A man in a vintage spacesuit rounds up cows. Rancher Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) plans on going to space -- he's building a rocket in his barn -- and nobody from his dusty Texas town or the federal government is going to tell him otherwise. This quirky dramedy, co-written by Michael and Mark Polish (Twin Falls, Idaho), is occasionally derailed by some saccharine moments. But Farmer also illustrates how our culture clamors for dream-big stories while consistently undermining them. Despite its whiff of the fantastic, it's Farmer's spirit, buoyed by the American iconoclasm and ingenuity we claim to treasure, that is the story's real arc -- not whether a rancher can actually go into orbit. An understated, wry performance from Thornton helps immeasurably, as does a sturdy cast of supporting players including Virginia Madsen, J.K. Simmons, Tim Blake Nelson and Bruce Willis. Starts Fri., Feb. 23. (AH)

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