Even if you knew nothing else about it, the title alone of The Astronaut Farmer would prevent you from getting sucked in by the opening image, a silhouette of a horseback rider on the crest of a hill at sunrise, an evocation of a complete screen mythology and a prompt of happy moviegoing memories. The full light of day, alas, reveals an absurdist vision of a mounted spaceman, a "space cowboy" as he will mandatorily be labelled on the television news, or more prosaically a Texas rancher named Farmer, who has clung to his dream of space travel long after he dropped out of the NASA training program -- "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing" -- and accordingly has hocked the ranch in order to build a private rocket ship in the barn. Though his family unconcernedly humors him, and his neighbors shake their heads ("He's more of an astro-nut if you ask me"), and the feds finally step in to trample the dream, the character is clearly intended to be an inspiration rather than a caution, a neo-Capra Little Man played with holy-fool earnestness by Billy Bob Thornton, albeit without the personal magnetism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Gary Cooper, in fact with a reptilian repellence distinctly his own.
That notwithstanding, he's a much squarer creation -- he, and the movie around him -- than we've grown accustomed to expect from the filmmaking team of the twin Polish brothers, Michael and Mark, of Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot and Northfork. The mainstream insistently beckons. And these certified oddballs, while ostensibly lionizing an oddball, do so in suits and ties. The surprise launch of the rocket only an hour and a quarter into the movie is surprising indeed, and quite spectacular in its haywire way, but this is followed swiftly by the depressing realization that that was but a false climax and that we must start building all over again to a new climax, and an utterly predictable one. Through it all, the dark rich imagery of the Polishes' regular cinematographer, M. David Mullen, is good to look at, so much better, to be specific, than the digital video of Jackpot. Good to look at, too, is that model of mature femininity, Virginia Madsen, in the subordinate role of the subordinate wife. Her post-Sideways comeback seems so far to mean simply that she has been more seen, not heard.
The Number 23 is a numerological thriller that puts a lot of ingenuity into ferreting out that combination of digits. It begins on February 3 (i.e., 2/3), flashes back to December 23, points out elsewhere that the numerals in 9/11/2001 add up to twenty-three (you might get fourteen or 2021, but try again), that 230 people died on TWA Flight 800, that each parent contributes twenty-three chromosomes to the DNA of a child, and on and on. (Releasing the movie on February 23 took a bit of ingenuity, too. Not much.) A full-blown obsession along these lines gets going when a chance chain of events leads the protagonist to a novel that bears the same name as the movie. An animal-control officer, compelled to work overtime by a grudge-holding boss, and bitten by a dog in the result, is late for a date with his wife, who whiles away the time in a used-book store (prophetically called A Novel Fate) and purchases for him the aforesaid novel, a slender, self-published softback in pica type, under the screaming pseudonym of Topsy Kretts. The protagonist then starts to notice strange parallels between his own life and the plot of the novel, a pastiche of the hard-boiled crime thriller, re-enacted on screen in lurid installments, the protagonist of the movie doubling as the protagonist of the novel, enveloped in desaturated colors, computerized landscapes, every known device of heightening the artificiality.
The hero's obsession, aside from any display of bad taste on his part, takes him irreversibly down a path of increasing ridiculousness (he determines the novelist is a real-life murderer and that he himself is the man to bring him to justice), and director Joel Schumacher fails to achieve a sufficiently persuasive tone to cover for it. Not the least of his problems is his lead actor, Jim Carrey, the Plastic Man whose ability to "stretch" himself has proven to be strictly physical. Which is to say, he shows more elasticity in an Ace Ventura comedy than in The Truman Show or The Majestic or Man on the Moon or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Virginia Madsen is here again the hapless, helpless wife, although at least in the re-enactments of the novel she gets to revive some of the femme-fatale vamping of her heyday.) The professional prohibition against "plot spoilers" -- once the movie reaches its height of ridiculousness -- is probably its best defense against the critic, who may have to content himself with pointing out, as just the tip of the iceberg, such a minor glitch as allowing the same dog who bites the hero at the outset to turn up again in a flashback fifteen years earlier.
Ghost Rider, yet another Marvel Comic turned unmarvelous movie, concerns an Evel Knievel motorcycle daredevil (Nicolas Cage, with a black divot of a hairpiece) who has sold his soul to Mephistopheles (a bouffant Peter Fonda), though he flees his responsibilities as "the Devil's bounty hunter" and continues to pursue his chosen vocation. One of his stunts has him jumping the length of a football field over churning helicopter blades, "from field goal to field goal." No fewer than three different people employ that expression -- "from field goal to field goal" -- and you can only wonder why none of these actors, or else, in consideration of the collaborative nature of the medium, one of the producers, or the assistant director, or the script girl, or the best boy, or somebody, couldn't have spoken up to the writer and director, Mark Steven Johnson, and said, "Mark Steven, I'm not the writer here, but you know, they're really not called field goals, they're called goalposts." Not that that would have fixed the movie. It starts off with one of those patience-taxing prologues which keeps you waiting twenty minutes for the star to appear, and which offers in his place a youthful incarnation that looks nothing like him. (At least the love interest is given a mole on her cheek to match that of Eva Mendes.) Even after that, the star tends to disappear whenever the action, so to speak, heats up, his head to be replaced at such times by a flaming skull (ooohhh!). And the action itself is of course not only cartoonish but a literal cartoon. The general effect is soporific -- despite the fact that the Son of Satan (Wes Bentley), whose touch turns men to ash, is out to conquer the world -- and the only counter to that effect is the ticklesome effect of the lame-brained dialogue.
Bridge to Terabithia, from the children's book by Katherine Paterson, brings together two junior-high pariahs, a picked-on "artistic" farmboy, solitary brother of four sisters, and a new girl next door, imaginative daughter of two novelists, and sends them off into a woodsy fantasyland of their own making, across the creek on a rope swing. Happily -- just as a change from the likes of Pan's Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia -- it's always clear that the fantasyland is only a fantasy, but that won't protect it from unsightly computer-generated giant trolls, jumbo flying squirrels, armored dragonflies, etc. And even though these are pretty well contained -- in time as well as space -- the sandpapery surface of the image is a constant irritant. (Director Gabor Csupo, an animation man whose credits run from early Simpsons to feature-length Rugrats, is making his live-action debut.) All of this is almost worth putting up with for the brave bit of struggle, late in the day, with issues of male infidelity (sure, the boy knows who his best friend is, but he nonetheless cannot harness a crush on his comely music teacher, Zooey Deschanel), guilt, loss, remorse. The struggle doesn't last long, but it's painful.