The Astronaut (April 27, 2020) Cert PG, 96 mins.
Digital Release on major UK video-on-demand platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google and Rakuten.
It is not surprising that the actress Shelagh McLeod (Peak Practice) is making her feature film debut as co-writer-director at 59 with a film about a retired civil engineer trying something new at 75. This is a healthy new trend in film, but it will not continue without talent on both sides of the camera. What makes The Astronaut worth seeing is that the retired engineer is Richard Dreyfuss, whose acting debut, American Graffiti, from 1973, was one of the seminal coming-of-age movies of all time.
Dreyfuss, who went on to win an Oscar for his role in the romcom, The Goodbye Girl, joins a long list of award-laden, A list actors who have starred in coming-of-age movies, and 40 or more years later refuse to retire. Instead, they either play characters who are forced by age or circumstances to retire, or they turn to directing.
Dustin Hoffman’s big breakthrough was the coming-of-age movie, The Graduate and although he was never consigned to a retirement home as an actor, that was the setting for his directorial debut at age 75, Quartet. Sir Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Dame Maggie Smith, all over 70s, were the colourful residents of a retirement home for musicians, based on a real one in Italy.
While we want to continue watching actors we grew up with, there is something sad about seeing Alfie (Michael Caine) in a nursing home in the film Is Anybody There? Even more depressing is seeing the love of Dr Zhivago’s life, played by Julie Christie, checking herself into a care home for Dementia patients in Away from Her. And though Morgan Freeman’s innate gravitas has meant that he never seemed young, he is not quite ready to be vegetating in an overprotective son’s suburban home in the comedy Last Vegas.
Last year, in the disappointing Netflix comedy, The Last Laugh, Dreyfuss played a former stand-up comedian who retired prematurely 50 years earlier and reunites with his manager (Chevy Chase!) for one last comedy tour. You will laugh a lot more by watching Dreyfus in the reruns of Down and Out in Beverly Hills on Sony Movies Classics, than in this Netflix film.
In The Astronaut, Dreyfuss is one of the Executive Producers, and so you hope for more. He plays Angus Steward, a retired civil engineer and lonely widower so there’s more sweetness, bordering on syrupy, than actual laughs. But Dreyfuss cuts through much of the sentimentality with that subversive sparkle in his eye that promises us more than we might otherwise expect. Dreyfuss has never been a matinee idol, but he has charm in spades. He won an Oscar for a romcom and played (to perfection) the liberal, two-timing husband with a bored, loving wife in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Here, the 72-year-old actor is overweight and looks his character’s age, 75, but possesses a rebellious streak that signals he will not be going anywhere gently.
Unfortunately, McLeod has borrowed the clichés from many films about old people who refuse to go gently into that good night and here Angus Stewart has the worst of both worlds: in the first half of the film he is living in his daughter’s suburban house, where he is micromanaged into submission by the well-meaning daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) and her condescending high-flyer husband Jim (Lyriq Bent). In the second half, when Angus’s health fails (he has a heart condition), they install him in a care home.
Angus is miserable, of course, but as is often the case, the young come to the rescue. With the help of his supportive grandson, Richie (Barney Williams), who alone believes in his grand-dad’s dream, Angus clandestinely enters a competition to become the first civilian passenger to go to space in a commercial enterprise. On the application he glosses over his health problems and changes his birthdate (an action that will ring true with many a senior viewer) and against all odds is successful.
A kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tension develops between the care home patients who come alive vicariously for the first time in years, and the overbearing care home employees and family. But in a nice twist to the formulaic story, the astronaut’s sky-high aspirations are tempered by the road building engineer’s concerns about the viability of the runway to withstand the take-off.
In a nicely integrated subplot that adds a dimension to the supporting characters, and presents Jim with a motive for changing his stern, negative stance, Angus figures out that Jim has a secret, too. It is a dark secret that he keeps to himself as he is too ashamed to tell his wife. Angus does not resort to blackmail but uses the situation to bond with his son-in-law who then sees the old man in a different light.
Despite some nice touches, McLeod’s best asset here is her leading man, but with lazy scriptwriting and plodding direction, she fails to give him a chance to soar.