Day 156: Gentlemen Broncos

"It's a friendship stone. Let's blow on it."

2004's Napoleon Dynamite unleashed an epidemic on the world. It made it cool to be uncool. While the film itself is a gem of quirks & truly bizarre characters and behavior, it also paved the way for a wave of copycats and imitators with an ever increasing deluge of diminishing returns. It can't be duplicated, but that hasn't stopped people from trying. Even that film's director, Jared Hess, has been trying to rebottle the lightning that led to his own initial success. His 2006 film Nacho Libre had an enormously entertaining trailer that spoiled all of the film's laughs, namely because the jokes were only funny out of the context of the film itself. In fact, that seems to be the problem with his brand of humor, the context of the film actually serves to squash whatever humor there is in the situations and characters.

His most recent, and to date last, film was 2009's Gentlemen Broncos, a film with an equally promising set-up. A home-schooled teenager writes a science fiction story that ends up being pilfered by his favorite author and turned into a wildly successful, albeit bastardized, novel. It's a brilliant premise that goes south so quickly, it makes you wonder why it was even made in the first place.

There's a strange dichotomy at work in the film, namely that it's obviously funny that the group of misfits we're introduced to early on are home-schooled and therefore socially inept, but the filmmakers make their behavior and quirks so outlandish that they would never be taken seriously as real people. It's like he's inviting us to laugh at the very notion of how awkward home-schooled children are by creating a group of characters that's more in line with a bus full of psychopaths. The joke is seemingly in the setup, but the punchline is a gut-punch that shames you into feeling bad for laughing at the mere premise of them being bizarre.

But anyway, Benajmin (Michael Angarano) has written a science fiction novel called "Yeast Lords" that he hopes to enter into competition for a chance at publication. One of the judges on the panel is Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), who's in some hot water of his own over his recent spate of unpublished rubbish. He's lost his mojo, so he decides to steal Benjamin's story, repurpose some of the character names and details, and pass it off as his own work, now titled "Brutus and Balzaak." These are the jokes people!

Anytime someone reads from the book, the film audience is treated to an on-screen interpretation starring Sam Rockwell as Bronco or Brutus, depending upon whose adaptation is shown. Rockwell is probably my favorite actor working in film today, and his performance was the highlight of the film, but he's so underused that even his appearances became trying late in the film. It's also made more confusing when two other students from the home-school trip Tabitha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) work on producing their own, officially licensed, film of "Yeast Lords."

The film is a jumbled mess, piling on subplot after subplot until you're not even sure what the main through line of the film is anymore. Benjamin's mother (Jennifer Coolidge) creates her own line of nightgowns & popcorn balls, and because he has no friends, hires Benjamin a "Guardian Angel" by the name of Dusty (Mike White) who ends up playing the lead in Lonnie's film of "Yeast Lords." The script is a nightmare of confusing plot diversions, made all the more difficult to enjoy because of the bizarre characterizations the actors chose in bringing them to life.

Coolidge is an actress that I normally like, but she makes so many woefully misguided decisions here, playing her character like nothing that resembles an actual living, breathing human being. Jimenez is a terrifying presence, playing his character not like an outsider, but like a deranged man who has been suddenly deprived of his medication. And absolutely no care or concern was given to creating a likable protagonist, so Angarano has no choice but to amble through the film doing nothing more than looking mopey or pouting.

Clement is pretty much the only saving grace of the film, outside of Rockwell. That he chose to model his character's voice on actor Michael York gives him the perfect air of pomposity, and the class he teaches on adding mythical suffixes to boring character names is probably the funniest part of the entire film. He goes a long way towards helping you to root for Benjamin by making Chevalier a particularly odious character, but a great villain does not a great hero make, and I never felt compelled to actually like Benjamin.

A lot of directors end up falling into self-parody at some point in their career, it's just not usually on their third film in five years. Jared Hess may yet snap out of his creative funk, but it's not likely. Unless he can attract major talent to elevate his bargain basement material, it's only going to go downhill from here. He may yet recapture the magic of Napoleon Dynamite, but he has to try harder than this. I refuse to believe this was the best possible version of this idea that was had. It's far too promising an idea to be wasted on such a dreadful movie.

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