MOVIE REVIEW: Astronaut
ASTRONAUT— 3 STARS
Through the niches and comely library aisles of off-label modest independent cinema, talent can elevate material. Sometimes the material isn’t the best at this level. A high class performer can come in and buoyantly lift an effort that wouldn’t have a chance to register or resonate with less. Little movies like that are easy to root for and even better to discover and appreciate. Richard Dreyfus bringing his talented capacity to Astronaut is exactly one of those exemplars.
Debuting recently at the wild and hairy Fantasia International Film Festival where science fiction and genre weirdness can get dialed to 12, Shelagh McLeod’s Astronaut softly chooses sentiment over spectacle. Dreyfus turns straw into gold for a character piece and family drama that makes for an earnest and touching afternoon charmer. The 72-year-old screen favorite may have missed the invitation to join Clint Eastwood’s rag tag cantankerous crew of geriatrics nineteen years ago for Space Cowboys, but he’s taking a decidedly different route to floating above the Pale Blue Dot.
Dreyfus plays Angus, a semi-recent widower saddled with his late wife’s financial debt from a farming real estate scam that preyed on her Alzheimer’s state. His cardiovascular health has declined to the point where he can no longer drive and is becoming an emerging burden on his adult daughter (Narc’s Krista Bridges) and her disapproving husband Jim (Lyric Dent of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It TV series). When he’s not reminiscing his personal history through alcohol-fueled coping time out in his workshop shed, Angus is a devoted and lovable “granddad” hero in the eyes of his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence of The Best Man Holiday) as they share quality time gazing into his telescope at a timely visiting comet. Sadly, a nursing home is Angus’s next stop.
Nearby, a worldly billionaire tech mogul named Marcus Brown (Thor’s Colm Feore) announces the Ventura competition to lead the first civilian space flight and offers a nationwide lottery contest to select the first lucky passengers for a two-week trip. As a child of the Space Age hey-day from a half-century ago, this opportunity is irresistible dream fulfillment for Angus. Even though he is older than the cut-off and very likely unfit physically, Barney talks Angus into entering. Sure enough, Angus gets his name called, shocking his family, fellow senior residents, and the general public at large.
LESSON #1: DON’T LET AGE STOP YOU FROM ANYTHING — Angus’s demotion from living an independent married life to the snail’s pace of Sundown Manor and family nitpicking would normally sap a person’s spirit. Instead, he becomes a bonding presence and symbol of hope to his new peers, especially his nearly mute friend Len (film veteran Graham Greene). The determination to accomplish something grander than the day-to-day monotonous march against mortality is lovely message from the film.
LESSON #2: STAND BY YOUR EXPERTISE — Angus is former civil engineer who spent his life building roads. Underneath the white hair and mildly fuddy-duddy exterior, the man knows his stuff when it comes to concrete, asphalt, and every pebble in between. Piggybacking with Lesson #1, when Angus questions the structural integrity of Marcus’s takeoff runway, he seeks to be heard for the knowledge he brings to the table, even in a room full of high-end scientists. You will learn more about oolite than you ever thought possible from Astronaut.
LESSON #3: TAKE RISKS FOR THE RIGHT REASONS — As Angus puts it, this kind of trip to space answers a question he has wondered his whole life. He wants to see where he belongs, and he doesn’t mean sightseeing. For him, this potential journey of self-discovery and personal validation is chiefly important. It is worth the rigors that could make his fragile heart fail.
With respectful intelligence and a steady hand, the easy tone sought by Shelagh McLeod stays between wisdom and whimsy. Much of the potential quirk factor is wisely subdued. Lesser and louder movies would turn Angus’s housemates into a buffoonery buffet for the sake of comic relief and Colm Feore’s entrepreneur into a contemptuous villain. Even when twinkly musical score from Virginia Kilbertus slows and the background drama of Angus’s immediate family inserts itself into the forefront, the confident trajectory stays upward and true. Sure, other science fiction movies of this sort would be aim to be more daring, but there is a narrative and character-building integrity worth celebrating here.
The glow and glue that makes this all work remains Richard Dreyfus. As aforementioned, the Oscar winner lifts everything and everyone he touches as if they were featherlight. His astute tenor and honorable dedication shine. Age knows no bounds to his generosity as an actor. A different star would be a ball-hog about this kind of character piece. Instead, Richard is out there sharing scenes for an up-and-coming female director and squeezing emotions out a multitude of connective co-stars and supportive presences that make Astronaut a broadly pleasing family affair. Tip your spacesuit visor to that kind of effort.