By Adam Roche
So far, Jared Hess has allowed us into his mind twice. The first trip was with ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, a virtually plotless, yet charming film about outsiders in the midwest that became an instant cult hit. The second was ‘Nacho Libre’, his prospective “big hit” with Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler, who spent much of the film mugging and not enough time making us laugh. So how does the scorecard stand? One hit, one miss. We’re about evens. But what does ‘Gentlemen Broncos’ do to tip the scales?
The plot, such as it is, concerns Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a home-schooled, morose teenager who aspires to be a sci-fi novelist with his tales of ‘The Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years’, an epic space fantasy revolving around Bronco, a kind of intergalactic Rambo, and his battles against the villainous Daisius.
His mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), a wannabe fashion designer, encourages his hobby and sends him to the Cletus Writer’s Festival, which is holding a competition to find the best unpublished manuscript. There, Michael meets Dr Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), an established sci-fi novelist whom Michael has hero worshipped his entire life. Behind closed doors, however, Chevalier is struggling to find inspiration and is about to be dropped by his publisher. As a judge for the Cletus competition he reads Michael’s entry and submits it to his publisher as his own, with small detail changes, and is shocked to find that it is a massive success.
Meanwhile, Michael becomes involved with Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez), two aspiring filmmakers who want to produce a low budget version of ‘The Yeast Lords’, and with Dusty (Mike White), his new found friend as part of the Guardian Angels program.
For fans of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, this film will satisfy your cravings for the bizarre, for the gaudy and the idiosyncratic. In fact, if I have to name my main criticism with the film it’s that the film is positively drowning in weirdness. It’s all very well to be offbeat, but when every single character is an outlandish freak, it’s hard to relate, and by turns, hard to care about any of its protagonists.
The film’s greatest strengths lie in the performances of Sam Rockwell as Bronco, and Jemaine Clement as the snivelling, desperate Chevalier, a creation so tawdry and fashion-blind, and yet so endearing that he is the film’s keystone. Most of the laughs come from Rockwell as Bronco as he goes from hillbilly action man in Michael’s book, to prancing, Barbarella-esque, transsexual superhero in Chevalier’s. His battles against the cyclops’ and the surveillance deer are the stuff of the surrealist’s wet dreams.
And yet, from the trailer, it seemed as though we were going to get something… else. For starters, Clement and Rockwell aren’t in it nearly enough. In fact, Clement almost disappears after the first half and doesn’t reappear until near the end. What looked to be a battle of wills and wits between Chevalier and Michael over ‘The Yeast Lords’ turns out to be something quite different. The meat of the film concerns Michael and Judith’s home life, punctuated by Lonnie and Tabatha’s horrifically amateur attempts to create a movie masterpiece, whilst Michael watches his story being pillaged by everyone he comes into contact with. The battle between Michael and Chevalier takes up the final ten minutes of the film, and is resolved a little too quickly by a rather disappointing touch of deus ex machina.
Whilst ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ produced laughs from inflections of speech and offbeat characterization, ‘Gentlemen Broncos’ relies on Clement and Rockwell, who aren’t in it enough to keep the laughs coming. The only jokes it produces without them concern snake shit and vomit, which have to make you wonder if Hess isn’t the big kid you thought he might be.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the film. It is certainly entertaining and charming in its own way. It’s just a shame that Clement and Rockwell are given such limited screen time. Also, it really needed a couple of normal folks to measure the freaks against. That said, if you don’t mind leaving your brain at the door and saddling up with Bronco for 90 minutes, you’d be hard pushed to find stranger adventures of a writer on celluloid this year. ‘Napoleon’ has a friend on his side of the scales, albeit one who only just tips the balance.
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