A Drooping Dream Team … Whole Town’s Gone to Pot

A Drooping Dream Team

With so many irritating movies aimed for the horny teenage market in this summer of shameless schlock, it’s a welcome relief to see a few liver spots. Space Cowboys , produced, directed by and starring the ruggedly perdurable Clint Eastwood, really mixes up the demographics, reminding us all that there is still a target audience of people in this world who are old enough for bus passes. Now let’s see if they’ll still take the bus to the movies. I hope so, because Space Cowboys is a hymn to the aging Hucks and Toms and all-American Joe Armstrongs who were once role models before the death of idealism in a dot-com world. Even in a capricious entertainment, it’s good to have the good old boys back for some good old hully-chee.

In 1958, they were daredevil test pilots so reckless and crazy and gung-ho to be the first men in outer space they used to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” in the cockpit while their engines were exploding. Somehow, they never made it. The space program replaced them with a chimpanzee. Now, more than 40 years later, these mavericks get a second chance when a Russian satellite suffers a systems failure that plunges the country into a blackout unless somebody can get into space, capture the satellite and fix it. Naturally, the only guy who can understand the obsolete, archaic technology is the space cowboy who designed it (Big Clint, looking more like the new face on Mount Rushmore every day). Time to round up the old fossils-Jerry, Tank and Hawk-who were the rest of the team.

Jerry (Donald Sutherland), the structural engineer, is now an aging, oversexed hippie who builds roller coasters. Tank (James Garner), the robotics expert, is a Baptist preacher with a bad back and fallen arches. Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), the team navigator, has been reduced to taking tourists on daredevil stunt rides. These geriatric flyboys have only got 34 days to solve the problem, but first they have to pass the physical. The group nude scene could set porno flicks back another 50 years. It’s fun watching them drag their love handles, beer bellies, bifocals and dentures into NASA, and the four stars have a ball poking fun at each other. The first hour and 15 minutes is about prep (Mr. Garner can’t do one sit-up without aid), romance (senior citizen or not, NASA physician Blair Brown takes a shine to Mr. Sutherland in the middle of his hernia exam) and human interest (one of the old geezers has cancer, but the rest of the team refuses to leave without him). Once they don their space helmets, the old-timers are soon shrugging off their creeping senility, and what might have been unseemly and embarrassing takes flight, thanks to the no-nonsense performances of a spunky cast of watchable veterans.

The second half is the actual mission, where the harmless satellite turns out to be a traveling hydrogen bomb with six nuclear Russian warheads aimed at planet Earth. What begins as a publicity stunt for NASA ends with the space cowboys saving the world from nuclear destruction. Then there’s the problem of how to get home with only one engine. Which astronauts survive? I’d be a cad to tell you, but I will let you know that one of the old farts finally reaches the moon, in a finale reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove .

It’s amazing how much excitement and suspense can be generated by such a preposterous idea, but the script (by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner) is taut and intelligent, Mr. Eastwood’s direction is tense, and the rich supporting cast includes James Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden, William Devane, Courtney B. Vance and Loren Dean. The special effects are splendid, the rigors of training follow to the letter the actual programs used to prepare today’s astronauts for space travel, and the four stars are just about the toughest old coon dogs this side of a Texas cattle drive. Mr. Jones has the best role and does more than anyone else to prevent the film from lapsing into cringe territory, while Mr. Eastwood chews ice cubes and mutters “Put a sock in it, sonny.” Old sawhorses never die; they just rocket-launch into new box office stratospheres. Juicy roles are hard to come by when the pecs won’t flex and the apple won’t bite, but Space Cowboys is the kind of high-tech spaceship western worth giving up your Medicare for.

Whole Town’s Gone to Pot

Brenda Blethyn, the British actress who soared to international attention (and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress) in Mike Leigh’s memorable Secrets and Lies , has cased the market looking for roles of equal stature. They haven’t been easy to find. Her slatternly mother in Little Voice was overshadowed by the catatonically-shy-daughter role of co-star Jane Horrocks (who hasn’t had much luck in movies, either). Employment (and stardom) is a sometime thing for women of maturity who have never known the meaning of the word “anorexia.” Now comes a movie called Saving Grace . Well, I’ll say this: It’s a star vehicle. The movie is only intermittently enjoyable, but Ms. Blethyn’s fans will be happy to know she is in almost every scene.

Grace is a bereft but enterprising widow who grows marijuana to make ends meet after discovering her late husband has left her penniless. She’s not a criminal by nature. In fact, she’s always led a secure, sheltered life growing prize orchids in a picturesque postcard village in Cornwall, where the Pirates of Penzance once reigned. But when her husband dies suddenly in a parachute jump, Grace’s life is rudely interrupted. Not only has her late husband squandered her inheritance on bogus business deals, but he has left her beautiful 300-year-old manor house mortgaged to the max and his tarty mistress grieving among the funeral mourners. Grace has to make some money fast to save her home from the auction block. It’s her dope-smoking Scottish gardener Matthew (delightfully played by Craig Ferguson) who comes up with the idea that money can indeed grow on trees.

Together, they hatch a desperate plan to turn Grace’s greenhouse into a pot plantation. Overnight, a garden club attraction becomes a Frankenstein laboratory for drugs, fertilizing weeds into trees while the villagers, steeped in the Cornish traditions of illegal smuggling and contempt for the law, conspire to help in any way they can. So Grace moves from the breathtaking serenity of Cornwall to the heart-stopping danger of the London underworld, looking for drug dealers to trade her kilos of contraband for bundles of tax-free cash. We are encouraged to applaud while Grace turns penurious disaster into felonious fun and profit and falls in love with one of London’s most glamorous drug traffickers on the side.

Like Shirley Valentine, her spirited new independence and enterprising new position as femme fatale make a new woman of Grace. Growing your own narcotics becomes a fun hobby, like stamp collecting, and I suppose it would be churlish to point out that what all of these charming people are doing could land them a 20-year stretch in jail. Not to worry. Saving Grace resolves its moral challenges faster than Madonna changes panties, Grace ends up with a man and a best-selling book, and the audience has a thoroughly rowdy time rooting for every gangster in sight.

Like The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine , this is a film with a questionable premise that depends strongly on a cast of loopy eccentrics to keep it percolating. The most humorous scenes, inserted for the purpose of distracting from a threadbare plot, seem like satiric sketches from late-night British television. With great characters like bumbling vicars and addlepated old dragons from the Ladies League mistaking Grace’s marijuana sprouts for herbs and getting stoned into gibbering hysterics on their tea, you have to laugh. And with great character actors like Leslie Phillips and Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum) populating the cast, the laughs are guaranteed.

Craig Ferguson, last seen on movie screens as the gay Scottish hairdresser who invaded Hollywood in The Big Tease , co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay (with Mark Crowdy). As a hilarious hunk, he’s just about cornered a market that doesn’t exist in American films. The game and perky Ms. Blethyn, miscast in a role that once would have been perfect for Margaret Rutherford, is more attractive than the script intended, but she makes a convincingly canny and charming centerpiece. Nimbly directed by Nigel Cole, Saving Grace is not a great movie, but as a cheerful slice of British silliness in the tradition of the old Ealing comedies, it’s a most agreeable one indeed.