In their old, indie days, Mark and Michael Polish and their quirky Big Sky country trilogy - Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot and Northfork - raised comparisons to the oddball aesthetic of David Lynch. In interviews, the twin brothers protested, citing other directors - Sergio Leone, for one - as far more significant influences.

But there was certainly a goofy, dreamlike Lynchian feel to those films, which makes the Polishes' new studio-backed one, The Astronaut Farmer, kind of their version of The Straight Story. That was Lynch's old-fashioned, follow-your-dream, Disney-released yarn about a resilient geezer who drove his lawn mower across the Midwest.

The Astronaut Farmer, equally old-fashioned if decidedly more ambitious in terms of its hero's destination and vehicle of choice, is about one Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a rancher and family man who is building a rocket in his barn - so he can launch himself into space.

The name of the ship: Dreamer.

The name of the Texas town where the Farmers live: Story.

No cloak of mysterious metaphor here.

And as stories go, The Astronaut Farmer is engaging, even if it serves up a kind of Plains State brand of Rocky-

esque hooey. Farmer, an ex-Air Force fighter pilot who quit NASA's astronaut program because of a family tragedy, has mortgaged his ranch to the hilt (and then some) to pay for the 50-foot rocket going up in his barn. The townsfolk think he's nuts. But his kids - daughters Sunshine and Stanley, and 15-year-old son Shepherd - are with him.

And his wife, a diner waitress named Audie (Virginia Madsen, enjoying a high-profile week: She's opposite Jim Carrey in The Number 23, also opening today), is supportive, too. Until she hears from the bank that the Farmers' spread is on the brink of foreclosure.

Charlie has jeopardized his family's well-being for a shot at orbiting Earth.

Filled with lovely images (the opening credit sequence, of Charlie in his spacesuit, riding the range on horseback, is a beaut) and nice character turns (Tim Blake Nelson as a small-town lawyer, Bruce Dern as Charlie's father-in-law), The Astronaut Farmer nonetheless veers too close to cliche. Along with the bank, it's the U.S. government that's set up as the bad guy: Clownish FBI agents (Mark Polish and John Gries) stake out the ranch, making noise about domestic terrorism, while the CIA and the FAA are heavily invested in making sure a private citizen doesn't propel himself into the atmosphere on the tip of a giant rocket.

Thornton, down-home and dogged, plays Charlie straight and true, and Madsen brings a real chemistry to the affair: Their scenes together, in good times and bad, ring true.

What doesn't ring true - or, at least, doesn't ring right - is the phony baloney ending, where vindication and validation come courtesy of a guest spot on Jay Leno.

What does it say about America that the greatest achievements of its pioneering populace don't mean anything until they're recognized on late-night TV?

Maybe The Astronaut Farmer is more realistic, and cynical, than the Polishes are letting on.

The Astronaut Farmer **1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Mark Polish, Michael Polish, Paula Weinstein and Len Amato, directed by Michael Polish, written by the Polish brothers, photography by M. David Mullen, music by Stuart Matthewman, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.

Charles Farmer.... Billy Bob Thornton Audie Farmer. . . Virginia Madsen

Shepherd Farmer.............Max Thieriot

Hal......................................Bruce Dern

Kevin Munchak. . . Tim Blake Nelson

Parent's guide: PG (adult themes, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

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Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.