In the movie industry, a director’s initial output often fits a predictable pattern: the first film introduces the filmmaker’s style, the second strengthens or breaks the mold, and the third generates heightened expectations. Unfortunately for husband-and-wife team Jared and Jerusha Hess, the third time isn’t the charm.
Their latest comedy, Gentlemen Broncos, amounts to little more than a rehash of 2004’s far superior Napoleon Dynamite. Whereas the first movie distinguished itself by its subtle and awkward charm, Gentlemen Broncos baffles with an affected stupidity that passes for indie cred. Even the so-so Nacho Libre (2006) is better than this.
The plot revolves around doe-eyed Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), a shy teenager from rural Utah who aspires to become a science-fiction writer. He pins his hopes on Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, an epic novel whose bearded protagonist pays tribute to the boy’s deceased father. Ben is homeschooled by his mom Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), an eccentric nightgown designer who makes extra money by selling popcorn balls.
When Ben submits Yeast Lords to a local writing contest, his story gets ripped off by washed-up fantasy writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords). Chevalier bastardizes the story by transforming the main character Bronco (Sam Rockwell) from a macho, “nad-flaunting caveman type into a lisping, stiletto-wearing cross between He-Man and Barbie.
As different people read out different versions of the story, the action shifts from reality to fantasy between Yeast Lords and Chevalier’s renamed The Adventures of Brutus and Balzaak. The sequences feature projectile vomiting, cyclops who look like they’re made out of Silly Putty and flying “battle stags” with mini-cannons that shoot out of their rectums.
Ben’s problems don’t end there. Yeast Lords also gets cannibalized by local filmmakers Lonnie Donaho (HÃ©ctor JimÃ©nez) and Tabatha Jenkins (Halley Feiffer), who see his manuscript as their ticket to Hollywood.
Donaho casts himself as Bronco’s cringeworthy love interest opposite Dusty (Mike White), Ben’s trailer trash big brother figure from church. These scenes are meant to be awful, but made worse by Donaho’s inexplicable propensity for spreading out his lips like a mentally-challenged California Raisin.
The biggest problem with Gentlemen Broncos is its poorly handled humour, which relies too much on weird for weirdness’ sake. At one point, Dusty teaches Ben how to use a blowgun by dipping the dart into a mixture of rat poison and his own poop. Instead of hitting its intended target (an unwitting cat), the dart plants itself squarely in Judith’s chest.
The fact that Gentlemen Broncos boasts a phenomenal cast makes its off-the-mark delivery all the more tragic. For one, Clement shines as the honey-toned sci-fi writer who believes in his own hype. Rockwell shows remarkable versatility and comedic timing as the Jekyll and Hyde versions of Bronco. As Ben’s mom, Coolidge effortlessly occupies the space between sweet and completely out of her mind.
It’s not hard to see what the filmmakers were trying to do with Gentlemen Broncos. The fantasy sequences are a loving tribute to pulp fiction, brimming with detail and nostalgia. Writers of all stripes can empathize with Ben’s struggle as he tries to maintain a semblance of creative control over his work.
Unfortunately, the film’s standout performances and rare funny moments just aren’t enough to redeem the whole film. In the end, Gentlemen Broncos is a movie that even Napoleon Dynamite would be hard-pressed to embrace.
Gentlemen Broncos opened at the AMC Forum on Nov. 13. For more information, call the box office at 514-904-1250.