Astronaut: Too slow for lift-off, but a touching character piece about the undying dream to soar

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-minus

A slow-moving Canadian movie about a slow-moving septuagenarian (Richard Dreyfuss) who dreams of going to space, Astronaut is almost maddeningly determined not to let its subject dictate its pace as it hovers on its characters.

Wannabe astronaut Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) study the stars.

Wannabe astronaut Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) study the stars.

At times, that slowness and steadiness in writer-director Shelagh McLeod’s tale is worth the wait as solid actors – including Dreyfuss and Graham Greene – do their thing. At others, it’s a source of consternation (particularly when events are moving at what should be a swift pace). But the “sad piano” soundtrack trope in the first act is probably the movie’s biggest hurdle. Stay with it, though.

In those morose moments, we meet retired engineer Angus (Dreyfuss), a widower idolized by his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), fussed over by his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) and patronized by his son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent). His best moments are spent with Barney trading views through a telescope of a comet apparently brighter than Halley’s, which never seems to move from its point in the sky through several months of the movie’s plot.

(With its low budget and mood, Astronaut has no hope of replicating either the experience or the mass hysteria the real first tourist-flight to space would generate. These, you must fill in with your mind’s eye).

But Angus and Barney’s secret shared ambition is for Angus to enter a lottery to join the passenger list of the first space tourism flight – the dream project of a billionaire industrialist named Marcus (Colm Feore). Think Elon Musk minus the eccentricities.

Angus, who looks uncannily like Dick Cheney, is going to pass himself off as 65 if he wins and hope to keep the charade going (though he doesn’t appear healthy enough to survive a bus ride let alone lift-off). 

It’s all idle fancy, until Angus is moved into a seniors care home for no obvious reason and is inspired to want out, in any direction including up.

Oddly, the movie actually picks up in what is supposed to be this depressing environment. Angus makes a new best friend in Len (Greene), a stroke victim who can barely talk, but who somehow is utterly understood by him. Art Hindle has fun with his role as the cantankerous old guy who’s constantly messing with people. (A fun movie to play spot-the-Canadian in, it also has roles for Colin Mochrie and Mimi Kuzyk among others).

And they’re a built-in cheering squad for Angus when the impossible seems about to happen (the women in the nursing home even become cutely flirty toward the “astronaut” in their midst). There are some curveballs on the way and some anxious moments on route to the happy-ish denouement. But the whole space plot actually seems more of a flimsy framework on which to hang the arcs of various characters (and show us some cute donkeys, a part of the plot I won’t divulge).

Despite its title, Astronaut is not a movie I’d recommend to space buffs, never going anywhere fast enough to achieve lift-off. But it has no small amount of genuine sweetness and heart and leaves the viewer at least a little verklempt.

Astronaut. Written and directed by Shelagh McLeod. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Richie Lawrence and Graham Greene. Opens Friday, July 26 in Toronto and Vancouver.