Geezers in Space
Old coots show signs of life in 'Space Cowboys'
By Rhonda Reeves

Mick Jagger fucks young girls for a reason. He can. Plumbers his age would do the same thing if they could... And women, it's your fault for thinking Sean Connery is sexy.

-Bill Maher

In the age of Viagra, it's easy to believe that Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones still have the Right Stuff at the box office.

Space Cowboys tries to spin their AARP status as a charming plot point. They're not cranky, they're irascible. Donald Sutherland isn't irritating, he's eccentric. And James Garner isn't geriatric -he radiates fatherly warmth and reassurance.

Still, this is a movie you want to like, in spite of how poorly the characters (not to mention the dialogue) are written.

Jones gets more mileage out of that laconic Texas drawl than any Harvard man has a right to, and owns the screen from the first syllable of his first line (a "Happy Birthday" that's somehow imbued with ironic detachment, sly bemusement, and a sexy contrarianism all at once. He can get more out of two words than Leonardo DiCaprio will get out of the rest of his career.)

With this much wattage, it's a shame that it takes almost 40 minutes to assemble the crew and send them through the front door at NASA. The first 15 are wasted setting the stage in 1958, with young, nondescript unknowns playing the then-mavericks, but with the voices of Eastwood et al. dubbed in. Aside from the obvious pacing problem, it's downright jarring to hear these grizzled, growly baritones coming out of the mouths of kids who've barely achieved chin pubes.

Space Cowboys is the big screen debut of screenwriter Howard Klausner (partnered with the more experienced Ken Kaufman) and it shows. It would appear that the duo did little more for "inspiration" than watch Armageddon and transcribe the formula in exactly this sequence: Introduce a ragtag group of "lovable losers." Introduce an impending national disaster. (Russian satellite will crash and chaos will plunge Russia into civil war ... orrrrr, so we are led to THINK. Uh huh.) Establish that only these losers have the specific skills necessary to save the day. (The system's a "pre-microprocessor" dinosaur - and Eastwood's the dinosaur who designed it, and can fix it.) Round up the losers, while presenting amusing glimpses of them in their natural habitat. (Eastwood's Frank Corvin is in the garage attempting to have sex with his wife on a washing machine; Garner's Tank Sullivan is a minister; Sutherland's Jerry O'Neil is testing his latest rollercoaster; and Jones's "aptly" named Hawk Hawkins flies a cropduster and dispenses "scary" rides to paying customers.) Bring the losers together and train them for this mission (hilarity should ensue, by the way). Involve the media - preferably Jay Leno and/or USA Today in said hilarity if at all possible. Manufacture a love interest or two. Shoot the losers into space. Require a designated codger to make a substantial sacrifice on behalf of mankind. Have codger(s) show up the young turks. Save day. Land dramatically.

James Cromwell as Bob Gerson is the bad guy who benched this "Team Daedalus" when the Air Force turned the space program over to NASA - replacing Eastwood with a monkey - and going on to a career as a high-level bureaucrat at the space agency. That sets the stage for ... blistering ... exchanges like, "How long has it been?" Answer. "Not long enough probably." Eviscerating.

Oh Clint. Clint. Clint. Whatever happened to "do you feel lucky punk?" ... or even "play Misty for me."??!!

Complicating the mix is the problem that most astronaut movies have. It's one that's been handled successfully, notably in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, but filmgoers will suffer a certain amount of tedium for the nominal sake of historical accuracy. But this is fantasy-entertainment, as opposed to docudrama. And the plain and simple fact is, that while space can be fascinating, engineering isn't much of a spectator sport. Astronauts and pilots are, generally speaking, sexy... but math, generally speaking, is not.

Notwithstanding Good Will Hunting where throngs of swooning girls paid to watch Matt Damon perform calculus, many viewers find that complex equations are disorienting, and will induce headaches, after only a brief time.

Though Space Cowboys tries to limit this factor, it's a space movie, and where there's space, there must be engineers.

There's also the caricature problem that goes with any movie in the "save the world" genre. For example, when Jerry (Sutherland) goes on Leno and talks about a woman's "infinite capacity for orgasms" (don't ask, it's a plot point, and an excruciating one), viewers are sure to wish they'd skipped the concessions, because the picture he paints is so vividly quease-inducing that the guy in front of you is liable to end up wearing your $12.50 "movie meal." But it's obligatory, because Sutherland is playing the role of "the well-endowed horny old bastard."

Which is not to say that sex has no place in a movie populated almost solely by guys who are firmly ensconced in the world of Denny's discounts and social security - it's just insulting the way the script mines their age for unfunny jokes. The scene of their physicals, for example, viewed from the rear, is a slapstick reminder that time and gravity wait for no man. (Stick Brad Pitt's ass under some fluorescents and see how good it looks.)

It's then hard to have it both ways when the movie then sets up a fully clothed Jones for a sweet, if implausible, interlude with Marcia Gay Harden as NASA's mission director, Sara Holland (in a haircut so bad, not even an engineer would be caught dead with it). And though it ends up functioning as clutter, it's still one of the film's nicer sequences - just an inconsistent one.

The effects (by the ubiquitous Industrial Light and Magic) are well done. Cromwell is suitably oily. Eastwood and Jones are thoroughly capable of making a dramatic reading of the J. Crew catalog seem compelling. All of which make it hard not to like this movie. (And if they'd thrown in say, Sam Shepard and maybe Scott Glenn in place of Sutherland and Garner, it'd be downright impossible.)

Oh we know, no one expects much of a late-summer action flick- and it's fair to say that it delivers reasonably well on that level - but it's still a little sad to see these guys wasted in this manner, and especially perplexing to see them wasted by Eastwood himself as producer/director.

These guys have a good movie in them (hell, ideally, they have dozens). But this wasn't it. Too many more of these and they won't retire, they'll have to be put down. Or far kinder, put 'em out to stud.