The White Shoe Irregular:
It was fun while it lasted.

In the Dark: Space Cowboys

Eric D. Snider

Let's face it, old people are funny. Whether it's Jack Palance speaking foully to Billy Crystal in "City Slickers," or Queen Elizabeth smiling as she passes by her adoring subjects, the bones in her tiny, fragile hand snapping like twigs with each wave, the elderly are a hoot.

When you put old people into unusual situations, it just makes them funnier. For example, imagine Queen Elizabeth wearing a gorilla costume as she gingerly shuffles her gnarled, useless feet across the sidewalk in front of Buckingham Palace. Just don't imagine it too loudly, or she could have you beheaded.

Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys" is based on this premise. Well, not on the gorilla-costume thing specifically, but on the idea that old people are funny. In the movie, Eastwood plays Frank Corvin, a retired military pilot who used to be the best in the business, back when airplanes were stick-shifts and you could usually get one of the actual Wright Brothers to be a copilot. Then America entered the space race, and a monkey was sent up instead of Corvin and his crew. You can understand why. I mean, there was no guarantee the astronauts were going to survive, and in 1958, the founders of PETA were still kids, eating Big Macs and shooting kittens for sport. (I'm being lazy. The true founder, Satan, was as actively evil as ever. He just hadn't inspired PETA yet.)

Anyway, now it's the year 2000, and there's a Cold War-era Russian satellite having problems, and the only man who can fix it is the man who designed it: Frank Corvin. Corvin doesn't know he designed it, of course; several times a week, he also doesn't know which house he lives in or what his wife's name is. But the government used Corvin's plan from another project on this satellite, too, and it's such an antiquated design — it's steam-powered, for example — that only Corvin could possibly understand it well enough to repair it.

So Corvin agrees to do it, but on one ridiculous condition: that he and his old 1958 should-have-been astronauts get to go into space to do the work. Their old boss, who now works at NASA and is played by James Cromwell (who is quite amiably evil here — somewhere between the pig-loving delusional old fool he was in "Babe" and the suicidal potty-mouth he was in "Eraser"), agrees to this plan, either out of senility or outright stupidity, one or the other.

The other three team members are Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland. The four go to NASA's boot camp and endure the rigorous training required before being shot into space (drinking Tang, etc.). I'm not the best judge of these things, but I'd say of this foursome, the canine-faced Tommy Lee Jones is by far the least attractive. Yet somehow it is his character who finds a love interest, a young NASA lady who overlooks his age, his solitary 8-inch eyebrow, and his appearance in "Double Jeopardy" and falls in love with him anyway.

This reminds us of an important point. While old people are funny, old people kissing other people are not funny. Filmmakers need to realize this, particularly when the old people are unappealing, even by old-people standards. Eastwood, classy director that he is, gives his character a wife who is actually his same age — a rarity for aging actors, who always seem to wind up with impossibly young actresses. Like the ancient Sean Connery, who was seen in 1999's "Entrapment" being all lovey-dovey with Catherine Zeta-Jones (who, in turn, was being romantic in real life with Michael Douglas, who is at least 175 years her senior). Connery was recently voted "Sexiest Man of the Twentieth Century" in an online poll. This was quite an honor for him, as it was the second consecutive century in which he received the award (previously beating out Millard Fillmore and Frederick Douglass).

Anyway, the four old guys go into space and virtually all of them succeed in not dying, which is pretty good, all things considered. The whole movie, while a little too "Armageddon"-y for my taste, is gently paced and quietly funny. Just like Queen Elizabeth in a gorilla suit.