Knight at the Movies Archives
A supreme example of "Capra corn,"never mind, and a really stupid, really funny, really GAY comedy
Chicago native Virginia Madsen, who reignited her career with her Oscar nominated performance in 2004’s Sideways, has two features
opening this Friday – The Astronaut Farmer in which she co-stars with Billy Bob Thornton and The Number 23 where she’s matched up
with Jim Carrey. The first film is excellent, the second less than that but both give Madsen excellent opportunities and offer further
proof of this wonderful actor’s capabilities.
In The Astronaut Farmer Madsen plays Audie Farmer, the wife of Charles (Billy Bob Thornton) and mother of their four spirited
children. The husband, a one time astronaut trainee, has never given up his dream of going into outer space. To that end he has
actually built – with the help of his teenage son Shepard (played by an earnest Max Thieriot) – a rocket ship inside the barn on the
family farm. Audie works as a waitress to cope with the mounting bills and is enormously supportive, along with the rest of the
family, of Charles’ dream. Now if only Charles could get the bank to loan him the $50,000 he needs for rocket fuel all would be well.
We arrive at the point at which Charles has been at his obsession/dream (they are apparently one and the same) for years and
things are nearing a breaking point. Either he’s going up or the family’s going to go down along with his dream. The local
townspeople see him as a likeable eccentric and chuckle about his mad idea. But once Charles orders the fuel NASA and the FBI
become alerted to his plans and at once try to stop him. When the easy going, upbeat Audie finds out that Charles has taken the
kids out of school for full time spaceship duty and put the family into such debt that they are less than 30 days away from losing
their home to boot, she finally blows her stack.
Once things cool down however, Audie stands by her man -- even when Charles' lawyer alerts the press to help keep things going.
“Embrace the media – make them your friend. What reporter wouldn’t love the story of a space cowboy?” he advises and soon the
ensuing media frenzy envelops the family (and the rest of the nation). This is, after all, a terrific human interest story.
Charles gets a visit from a former astronaut buddy (Bruce Willis) who advises him to stop the madness. But nothing really seems to
deter the taciturn Charles in his quest until he comes up against what he momentarily thinks are the consequences his dream is
having on his family. As the story plays out there will be many setbacks and speeches of encouragement from those on the
sidelines (including one from Audie’s father, played by Bruce Dern) before Charles decides whether or not to go forward with his
The movie is filmed in golden hued, dappled colors that add to the dreamlike quality of the story. It’s a farfetched idea that is just
crazy enough to be inspirational though there are many places where the story stretches the limit of believability. But based on its
huge heart and courage in the face of complacency – rare qualities in movies today – the movie triumphs. The acting by Thornton
and Madsen, along with the majority of the cast, adds depth to this unusual story. The cameo by Willis, I felt, was the movie’s only
real misstep and strains credibility. “Why are they listening to this guy with his dyed hair, and creepy aura?” I thought to myself as
soon as Willis appears. But just as quickly, thankfully, Willis disappears and the dreamy quality returns.
The movie was co-written by Mark and Michael Polish, and directed by Michael. These twin brothers were also responsible for the
decidedly offbeat Twin Falls, Idaho, a love story involving a pair of Siamese twins (played by them) and based on that, I’d hardly
have expected them to come out with a movie like The Astronaut Farmer. The kind of movie, it slowly dawned as I watched, that used
to be called “a film for the whole family.” I’m not talking about some cloying Disney message picture sticky with sentiment or its
preachy reverse – as that label clearly implies.
But nevertheless, “a film for the whole family” is an apt description for The Astronaut Farmer because it’s a movie that defies your
expectations throughout in ways that decades of other “family” movies have eroded. The kids aren’t pint sized cynics, the teenage
son actually respects the parents and reveres the father, the husband and wife aren’t mismatched buffoons, trading barbs and
taking pratfalls in the mud, and optimism trumps skepticism.
It took awhile to realize that The Astronaut Farmer is actually a new addition to what used to be called “Capra corn.” That criticism was
so often lobbed at classic Hollywood director Frank Capra’s films that it became a phrase of derision – most often used to describe
the movies in which he championed and romanticized the underdog. Films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
and most vociferously at what’s now considered his greatest classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Cynics will be turned off but I think The
Astronaut Farmer is a supreme example of Capra corn and it’s not a stretch to also tag the film as an instant classic.
I’ve used up the majority of my column space talking about The Astronaut Farmer in part because I liked it so much and hope that
high praise will give it a chance with audiences and also so that I have little space to discuss Virginia Madsen’s other film opening
this week, The Number 23. About this quasi thriller, the latest from gay director Joel Schumacher, the less said the better. Jim
Carrey plays a mild mannered dog catcher (!) whose wife (Madsen) buys him a book with which he becomes obsessed. To the point
where he splits off into an alter ego (just like Tim Hutton in The Dark Half) that’s a tough talking, saxophone wailing, private eye type
with stubble, dark hair and a snarl. Madsen gets to play the slinky brunette femme fatale (complete with black slip) mistress of the
alter ego and the exasperated but understanding wife. Her real life ex-husband Danny Huston plays a wealthy family friend that
fans the flames of Carrey’s jealousy/paranoia.
The Number 23 is one of those films (beautifully and meticulously made as it is) that is such implausible claptrap that you either
totally suspend your belief and follow it from beginning to end or laugh your head off at the deadly serious obsessions of the
characters on the screen as they search for “answers” to their silly mystery. Sometimes both at once.
Reno 911: Miami is based on the Comedy Central show, "Reno 911." Now in its fourth season, the show is a hit or miss comedic
parody of television’s longest running reality show, Cops. The rag-tag group of police officers, headquartered out of a fictional Reno
police precinct, are a cornucopia of characters so perversely stupid, politically incorrect AND inept the mind boggles. This group is led
by the short wearing, blond highlighted Lt. Jim Dangle (Oak Park native Thomas Lennon) who makes no secret of his gay proclivities
or his enormous attraction to his fellow officer, Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough). Jones and the rest of the group have their own set
of attractions (none, unfortunately, matches up with the yearnings of their secret admirer). All this is a running joke throughout
episodes of the show and with the leap to the big screen, fully blossoms.
The whisper thin premise for the movie is that the Reno crew, invited to a police convention in Miami (because ALL police officers in
America are invited), are the only available law enforcement when a terrorist groups holds all the other officers hostage. Delighted
with their new assignment, the crew heads out to the streets of Miami (after donning their spiffy new uniforms) to combat crime in
their typical dunderheaded fashion.
The result is a very funny movie in a vein similar to the crude humor of Mel Brooks, the Naked Gun series and the like. It’s the kind
of movie where the writers (Lennon and his onscreen partner Ben Garant and the rest of the principal cast) and director (Garant
again) fling verbal and visual jokes one after the other at the audience until you find yourself laughing helplessly. It has the
moments of aggressive, gross-out humor of similar entries in the genre but not nearly the high quotient (it’s much better than the
Scary Movie parodies for example).
And with not one but two main gay characters (Dangle’s co-officer Cherish Kimble is an unacknowledged lesbian), Reno 911: Miami is
not only a whacked out, mindless entertainment, it’s gay as a goose. What better recommendation to ask for from a favorite waste
of time comedy like this?
Virginia Madsen Week and Silliness:
The Astronaut Farmer-The Number 23-Reno 911: Miami
Expanded Edition of 2-21-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.