It feels like decades since Richard Dreyfuss, Best Actor Oscar winner for The Goodbye Girl, headlined a movie. The star of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind goes back into space in Astronaut, a gentle ‘follow your dream’ Canadian drama that plays – extremely well – to an older audience.
Dreyfuss is on great form as Angus, a seventy-five year-old curmudgeonly grandfather with a dodgy ticker who is set to spend his days in a care home until the prospect of joining the first commercial flight into space puts a rocket up his backside. The actor has unusually come out to bat for the film, making an appearance (with walking stick) at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and even turning up for the festival ceilidh – albeit to watch. He is in good company; at the 2018 ceilidh, Ben Elton didn’t try Scottish dancing either.
At the start of the film, widower Angus, a retired civil engineer with an interest in rocks, is living with his daughter Molly (Krysta Bridges), son-in-law, Jim (Lyriq Bent) and young grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) recovering from a recent operation. Angus loves to stare at the stars and follows a comet as it blazes across the sky slowly but brightly – a reflection of Dreyfuss himself. After Angus has a cardiac episode, Molly resolves to put him in a home, one in which the residents are encouraged to sing ‘I Don’t Want Nobody But You’ – minus the ‘But You’ to prepare them for a life of solitude. Seeing multi-millionaire Marcus Brown (Colm Feore in a role that is part Elon Musk, part James Cameron) advertise the Ventura commercial space travel programme on television, Angus looks at his options and races to submit an application, lying about his age, much to the delight of young Barney.
In casting Dreyfuss, Canadian-born actress-turned-writer-director Shelagh McLeod plays to the audience’s desire to see the actor back among the stars. In studio movies of the last decade or so (W., Red, Book Club) Dreyfuss has been largely relegated to cameos in which he barely made an impression. This is his best role since 1995, playing the titular music teacher in Mr Holland’s Opus. He exudes warmth, an interest in others and the sense that he is not just there for a pay cheque. Angus bonds with an elderly resident (Graham Greene) who is rendered near inarticulate by a stroke and without really drawing attention to himself, gets the other residents – cast for their tics rather than their character – up and dancing.
There are various subplots involving a donkey sanctuary and financial irregularities, but the main plot revolves around soil erosion as Angus harbours serious doubts that the runway Marcus has appropriated may not take the weight of the rocket.
The film has a low-key quality that contrasts favourably with traditional Hollywood fare. McLeod does not push hard on the sentimentality button. Instead she allows incidents to have a cumulative effect.
There is one scene that is a bit much – involving said donkeys and a far away figure. For the most part, the film is expertly judged. Appealingly acted, it has a strong message about the importance of listening to the experts, no matter how unlikely they are, something that resonates with our current lockdown times.
Astronaut is available to stream on Amazon, BT, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store and Virgin from Monday 27 April 2020