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Plowing the Stars 

Jay Leno is annoying. The first time he popped up in a movie playing himself -- Dave in 1993 -- the idea was fresh and funny. Then he did it in Wayne's World 2 and in Major League II and then it became a habit. The Hollywood call went out: Hey, let's get Leno to play himself in our movie. That'll grab the audience!

So here he is again, tired old Jay, playing Jay, interviewing a farmer who intends to launch himself into space in the rocket he's building out back in the barn.

But forget Jay. There's also the problem with references to the title character. Most of the locals in the film's small Texas town think that he's nuts. He dons his silver space suit to ride around on his horse looking for stray cattle. He puts it on again when he visits an elementary school to tell kids all about space and rockets. When people talk about him behind his back, he's referred to as "rocket man" or "space cowboy." (At least no one calls him "Ziggy Stardust.")

When he's right there, though, they call him "farmer." Kind of impersonal, don't you think? Then, about a quarter of the way into the film, it's revealed that his name is Charlie Farmer. Ah.

Despite such quibbles, this movie works as a well-made family affair. It's a true family movie -- about a family -- that families can attend together. Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) has wanted to go into space since he was a kid. He got an engineering degree and was on-track to join the space program, when... but then that's all summed up in a speech to him by a pal of his: "You are not an astronaut. It didn't happen."

But it will happen, he says to himself. He says it right out loud to his loving and incredibly understanding family -- diner waitress wife (Virginia Madsen), 15-year-old son, and two little daughters. He tells them everything, except that he's broke and he's nearing foreclosure on the ranch. "But I'm close to launching," he tells his not-so-patient banker.

When the FBI hears that Charlie is looking around for 10,000 pounds of fuel, they take an interest in him. When the media catches a whiff of something going on at the ranch, they make a beeline for it, cameras and microphones in tow.

And so on and so on. Such a nice little story. Such a bland group of folks.

But the film is saved, to a degree, by its makers -- the Polish brothers, Mark and Michael, who have already given us the gently strange Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, both of which are dark yet comic and full of some masterful imagery.

The Astronaut Farmer lacks the darkness of its predecessors (although it threatens to get serious from time to time, only to be relieved by sweet resolve). But it's both funny and startlingly beautiful to watch.

Some of the comedy has a political edge to it. Shortly after Charlie's lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) tells him, in reference to the FBI, "With the Patriot Act twisting the law up so much, they can do whatever they want," the film begins cutting away to the quietly goofy antics of two black-suited FBI agents. When one of their cell phones goes off, the ring tone is Darth Vader's theme.

But it's the stunning imagery that's the film's saving grace. The opening sequence of the horse ride is a grabber. Every shot of the Farmer abode reveals the entire house, caught in gorgeously lit widescreen. A truly magical visual shows the passing of time -- of fall smoothly bypassing winter and turning into summer -- all in a single shot of a tree.

As with Leno's two off-putting appearances, the film is marred by a couple of clich & eacute;d speeches, especially one where Thornton talks about having nothing if we don't have our dreams. He's a good, very sincere actor, someone who doesn't need that kind of corny dialogue to get his character's point across.

Near the end, just before everything goes into warp speed in the storytelling department, there's (finally) some big-time peril and a spectacular action sequence. Do you think Charlie Farmer's hopes of one orbit will come true? Well, The Astronaut Farmer is one inspirational if far-fetched movie.

The Astronaut Farmer
Rated PG
Worth $9
Directed by Michael Polish
Starring BIlly Bob Thorton, Virginia Madsen

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