Aug. 16, 2000

“Space Cowboys"
Or, “Grumpy Old Astronauts”


       As I look back at the multitude of movies Clint Eastwood has made over the past 40-odd years, what’s surprising is not that he made a dull, stupid, insipid, illogical picture like “Space Cowboys,” it’s that he ever rose to the level of making an honestly great film like “Unforgiven.”  “Space Cowboys” fits easily into Eastwood’s ouvre somewhere below “Every Which Way But Loose” and Any Which Way You Can,” which at least got a few laughs out of an orangutan blowing raspberries and Ruth Gordon swearing.  The highlight of this film is Donald Sutherland losing his dentures, which is in both the commercial and the trailer.  For me, “The Eiger Sanction,” “The Rookie,” “Pink Cadillac” and “Firefox” fall below that, which is the very bottom of Clint’s career.
       What’s most distressing to me about “Space Cowboys” is that it is so poorly written and Clint the producer didn’t know enough about storytelling at this late date in his career to have the writers fix it.  Instead of any simple, rational character motivations, we are constantly tossed back into the mind-deadening doldrums of illogical plot twists.  We’re all willing to suspend our communal disbelief and give them that these old guys would end up on a space mission, but that’s as far as we’ll go because it’s pretty far-fetched.  Every illogical plot turn that is thrown at us thereafter -- we’re helping the Russians bring back a communication satellite that contains the same guidance system as the SpaceLab (designed by Clint), but was stolen during the Cold War, but it isn’t a communication satellite anyway, it’s got nuclear rockets on board (oh, surprise, surprise) and has to be shot off into space, but uh-oh, Tommy Lee Jones has pancreatic cancer and, wait a minute, is this a comedy?  It sure doesn’t have many laughs if it is.
       This is one of those films where you go out for coffee afterward and try to re-write the script so that it makes some slight lick of sense.  For instance, what if Tommy Lee Jones was almost the astronaut to walk on the moon, but lost it, thus he ends up there; if you bother making James Garner a Baptist minister, why not give him a crisis of faith?  And why did he become a minister?  Did something as a pilot scare him?  And why not make one of the two utterly extraneous younger astronauts onboard a cute chick so you can keep playing the Donald Sutherland babe magnet shtick?  The entire film is all a series of missed opportunities. 
       And is it just me or is Tommy Lee Jones significantly younger than the rest of those guys?  Like solidly ten years younger anyway.  He’s got to be nearly twenty years younger than James Garner (let’s check, shall we? . . . James Garner was born in 1928 and Tommy Lee Jones was born in 1946 -- eighteen years -- see, I was close).
       Also, Clint as director does a very odd thing at the beginning that I found both distracting and a little disturbing.  It begins in black & white in 1958 with all of the characters being played by younger, sort of look-alike, actors, but with Clint Eastwood, James Garner and all the other old guys’ voices dubbed in on top of them.  It took Clint seventy years to get his voice that raspy and hearing it emanating from a young man is disconcerting.
       And another thing, what’s up with William Devane’s face and why is he doing such odd facial contortions the whole film?  He reminded me of a dog with a mouthful of peanut butter.
       So, I saw the “Space Cowboys” with my friend Jane, who produced my last two movies.  We were talking on the phone today and as she was expressing her disappointment in the film she said, “I hope we don’t make a movie that bad.”
       I replied, “We won’t have that much money so we can’t make a movie that bad.  It takes at least 50 million dollars to make a film that bad.” 
       And that’s the state of affairs these days -- if the film cost more than 50 million dollars it will certainly suck.  If it cost more than that it will suck even worse.