Monday, August 22, 2011

Gentlemen Broncos

Some years ago I began reading about this quirky film called NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Professional reviewer and imdb poster alike were raving of the droll exploits of a nerdy teen making his way through high school in rural Idaho. It did not sound enticing. The film finally opened relatively close to me and by that time, it seemed that it already achieved cult status. I went to see it and within 10 minutes I knew what all the shouting was about. The filmmakers recognized how to milk a dreary landscape with dour characters into comedic gold. The timing of dialogue and facial reactions of characters were priceless. The actors seemed to have an understanding of the importance of "beats" and eye contact to maintain the tone. The audience at the theater was knowing and appreciative. I would later buy the DVD and my wife and I have watched it countless times, still finding some nuance not noticed before.

The director was a 25 year old Mormon named Jared Hess. He and his wife Jerusha collaborated on the screenplay for NAPOLEON. They followed it up with the mild but enjoyable NACHO LIBRE, starring Jack Black. Some of the same smug goofiness was there, but things were a bit broader, cruder. One of the remarkable things about the PG-rated NAPOLEON was how clean it was in an era of AMERICAN PIE and ROAD TRIP type crassness. It managed to be hilarious without any real profanity ("friggin" was about the worst it got) or sex gags. NACHO was still family friendly, but the material was second rate and while the satiric tone held most of the way, it just wasn't that memorable, even with the allegedly Wes Andersonian touches. Was it the dreaded sophomore slump? If so, I'm hard pressed to find an excuse for the Hesses' latest, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS.

In a sentence, this is one of the worst studio films I have ever seen. No kidding. I've seen some real refuse in my 34 years of filmgoing, too. I can include or exclude the real bottom of the barrel direct to video schlockers that don't even deserve a mention by title, "video nasties" that exist only to appeal to bloodlust or the viewer's genitals. No, the worst films are often the ones that have talent behind the camera, people we know are capable of much better. When they write and direct something as witless and painfully unfunny as GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, it just seems worse than even legendarily bad films of all stripes like ISHTAR, STREET TRASH, and THE BELIEVERS.

As with many bad films, the intial ideas of BRONCOS are promising: severely introverted, home-schooled teen Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) attends a sci-fi writer's conference to enter his beloved masterwork "Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years" in a competition judged by a luminary in the field, one Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jermaine Clement of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords", here sporting an amusing gutteral accent). Chevalier wote his first galactic trilogy as a young teen and is very happy to remind you of that with each encounter. His sessions typically end in humiliation for his fans, budding Bradburys and Asimovs all, as Chevalier dismisses the young charges' ideas and even their names for characters. "Nebbacanezzer?" he scoffs at a disciple, "how predictable!" That sequence had the germ of funny, but it drags on far too long, like an interminable one joke Saturday Night Live skit.

Chevalier is also currently creatively blocked. When he does produce a new tome of late, it is dismissed by his editors. As he reads through one turgid manuscript after another during the competition, he discovers "Yeast Lords" and sees his deliverance. He changes the names and a few details and again reclaims his celebrity.

Meanwhile, Benjamin returns to his sad life in Utah in one of those 1970s "dome" houses with his mother (Jennifer Coolidge, often funny nonetheless), the owner of a dress shop. The garments are as sad as the proprieters. To make things worse, Benjamin works there as well. His lot does not improve when Tabitha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jiminez), two utter flakes he meets at the conference, show interest in his story and offer to film it. Lonnie is a self-proclaimed artist who boasts that his company has produced 85 films (they're actually merely trailers). Benjamin suffers what many writers do when filmmakers get their hands on their works - the adaptation: the omissions, the unfortunate additions, etc. The resulting film plays at local theater to many deserved jeers. The filmmakers have no talent.

Part of the joke of GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, I think, is that neither do Benjamin or Chevalier. We are periodically treated to breaks in the main story, episodes bringing the "Yeast Lords" book to life, complete with Sam Rockwell as Bronco, the protagonist. The episodes are intentionally awful on the Hesses' part, recounting a story that has something to do with testes in jars and ammo that fires out of women's breasts and reindeers' anuses. I could try to tell you the real plot of "Yeast Lords", but trust me, it ain't worth anyone's bother. These sequences are quite oblique, but strangely uninteresting. The 50s B-movie parody sequences in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON were more entertaining than anything here. Maybe I am just not in tune with the humor. Maybe I don't get what are certain to be specific targets. All during this movie, I imagined a small contingent of certain viewers laughing hysterically. Good for them, baaaadd for everyone else.

Benjamin eventually learns that Chevalier plagiarized his work and we are treated to a climax and denouement that is far more satisfying than the nonsense that preceded it. I sat in disbelief as a non-stop parade of testicle, excrement, and breast jokes played out. This film is truly fixated on them. The Hesses have made a gross out comedy that nonethless is still relatively clean, but is just awesomely bad. It just tries too hard, often desparately. The reason NAPOLEON worked so well was because it just allowed its characters to be themselves. The humor blossomed out of that. In BRONCOS we are served distorted faces, ridiculous accents, clumsy, esoteric satire, and the aforementioned preoccupation with gags related to the human (and even snake!) anatomy. Did Jared and Jerusha channel their inner 6-year olds when they wrote this?!

It's tempting to call the movie stupid, but it's clear that a certain subculture is getting a knowing ribbing. Jabs at sci-fi fandom and those who perhaps can't quite reconcile reality are not spared, and there is an occasional laugh or at least smile as a result. Sci-fi books and films also get a good skewer, especially when one attempts to defend its merit as a genre. Unfortunately, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS seems more content with going over-the-top with goofiness and obscure humor. Not that I mind either (I love BUCKAROO BANZAI, for example), but it really does not come off here.

I read a posting that stated one needs to be familiar with life in Utah to really get this movie. That is more effort than I am willing to spend to reconsider this, um, turd of a movie.
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