If I told you how many times I’ve watched Jared Hess’ 2004 nerd comedy classic “Napoleon Dynamite” over the past few years, you’d immediately stop reading this review. No joke. The movie is an off-beat slice of cinematic genius, a masterpiece of deadpan humor and awkward teen angst. Hess’ highly-anticipated follow-up, the 2006 Jack Black wrestling farce “Nacho Libre”, was something of a letdown, though it too receives much more attention from me than I’m willing to openly acknowledge. These admittedly strange films strike a weird, poorly-tuned chord with me, and though I’ve taken quite the critical lashing for singing their praises whenever possible, I’ll continue to spread the gospel.
After witnessing the ruthless reviews associated with Hess’ latest endeavor, the 2009 comedy “Gentlemen Broncos”, I began to worry. Had the director lost his edge? Was “Napoleon Dynamite” to be his magnum opus, his only true masterwork? Apprehension and doubt were threatening to overwhelm me, so I smartly stashed the film’s existence out of my unfaithful mind until it’s inevitable DVD release. Besides, the picture wasn’t playing anywhere near my home, and I wasn’t really inclined to drive hundreds of miles to watch a movie that, according to almost every reputable critic on the planet, qualified as one of the worst efforts of the year.
My taste in cinema must rank as one of history’s absolute worst, as I’m of the belief that “Gentlemen Broncos” is, in a word, fantastic. Maybe Hess’ sense of humor is directly aligned with my own, or maybe his portrayal of the prototypical white suburban loser hits extremely close to home — whatever the case may be, I’m infatuated with his work, and “Broncos” is certainly no exception. However, I can thoroughly understand why most people were immune to its charms: the picture is loaded with PG-13-friendly dick and fart jokes, extremely peculiar characters, and an array of nods and references to the sort of fantasy and sci-fi novels my grandmother used to collect. In other words, the movie’s appeal is anything but broad.
Michael Angarano (“Sky High”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”) stars as Benjamin, a socially-awkward home-schooler with a flare for penning outlandishly esoteric fantasy stories that tend to frighten his slightly misguided mother (Jennifer Coolidge). While attending a writing conference hosted by his favorite author Ronald Chevalier (“Flight of the Conchords” co-star Jemaine Clement), Benjamin decides to enter his latest literary outing, the oddly titled “Yeast Lords – The Bronco Years”, into a writing competition, a contest that will net the winner numerous accolades and the professional publication of his or her story in paperback. Needless to say, Benjamin is excited about the opportunity to share his yarns with the world.
However, while Chevalier is reading through the submissions in his hotel room, he receives a most distressing phone call: The writer’s forthcoming novel has been rejected by his publisher, and if he doesn’t deliver a marketable piece of work post-haste, Chevalier can kiss his contract goodbye. In an act of complete desperation, Ronald takes “Yeast Lords”, rearranges a few elements, changes a few names, and hands in the manuscript as his own. Unbeknownst to Benjamin and his friends, his story is an instant best-seller, and has single-handedly reinvigorated his plagiaristic idol’s floundering career.
Whenever material from “Yeast Lords” is referenced directly, “Gentlemen Broncos” suddenly mutates into a low-budget psychedelic sci-fi flick reminiscent of the generic fodder produced during the 70’s and early 80’s. Sam Rockwell portrays the heroic Bronco (or, in Chevalier’s version, Brutus), a man who wishes to destroy the dastardly villain responsible for stealing one of his sacred gonads. The sequences are admittedly sophomoric, but once you realize they were conceived by a geeky teenager who spends his free time reading silly paperback novels, it all makes perfect sense.
The script, written by brothers Jared and Jerusha Hess, balances both absurdity and sweetness with expert precision. Benjamin, while wholly pathetic, is an easy character to sympathize with; try as he might, all of his undertakings become outrageous failures. However, despite this fact, the poor kid continues to sally forth. The moment Benjamin, having reached his threshold for humiliation, decides to confront the opportunistic pervert who propositions his mom is both hilarious and heartwarming, especially since his wonky attempt at macho bravado is cut short by a hail of gunshots. Even the devious Ronald Chevalier is hard to hate, though I think this has more to do with Jemaine Clement’s clever performance than anything else. Mike White and Hector Jimenez aren’t too shabby, either.
“Gentlemen Broncos” is one of the few movies that can truly be labeled as misunderstood. Unless you’re a loser, a misfit, or a social outcast, you may have a hard time finding your foothold. I’ve a feeling that the film is a strangely personal effort for Jared Hess, and I’m willing to bet there’s more autobiographical material here than in any of his previous joints. As someone who spent a large portion of his childhood reading sci-fi novels and playing text-based adventure games on his dad’s Wang computer, I can totally relate to Benjamin and his unusual obsession with strange characters and fantastical alien worlds. Be that as it may, I don’t expect you to feel the same way. “Gentlemen Broncos” isn’t for everyone, and that’s perfectly okay.
Jared Hess (director) / Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Angarano … Benjamin
Jemaine Clement … Ronald Chevalier
Sam Rockwell … Bronco / Brutus
Jennifer Coolidge … Judith
Hector Jimenez … Lonnie Donaho
Mike White … Dusty