All of the posters and marketing materials associated with Gentlemen Broncos are accompanied by the phrase “From the director of Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite” with the second movie in much, much larger letters than the first. In fact, I’ve even seen some that only mention Jared Hess’s second, and most well-known, feature film. The reasoning for this is simple: Hess achieved a cult hit that resonated with a large group of people – many of whom can still be heard quoting the damned thing while feigning an overbite. It’s a selling point. His most popular and (coincidentally) his best film. With his next feature hitting theaters soon, though, I feel safe in saying that in the marketing for whatever movie he makes, the phrase “From the director of Napoleon Dynamite” is in zero danger of being replaced by any mention of Gentlemen Broncos.
After attending a writing camp, Benjamin (Michael Angarano) hopes that his science fiction novella will win the top prize being judged on by his idol Ronald Chevaliar (Jemaine Clement), but the pompous has-been ends up plagiarizing it and earning a best-seller. Meanwhile, Benjamin tries to cope with two teenage filmmakers who want his story and his mother’s new (probably) functionally retarded boyfriend.
Gentlemen Broncos is not a great film.
The problems are many and varied, but mostly they stem from director Jared Hess’s inability to create character-based humor. That might sound odd considering that there are Halloween costumes based on characters from his movies, but there’s really nothing going on behind the single physical or emotional attribute that each character possesses. In this case, there’s Benjamin’s mom Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) who makes popcorn balls and sells nightwear; Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) who uses people while talking in a snide voice; Dusty (Mike White) has a snake that poops on him and he stares a lot; and Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jiminez) who shows all of his teeth like a horse when he talks or smiles (just like he did in Nacho Libre). While they are funny at times, they are the cinematic equivalent of SNL sketch characters. Hess might as well have made a feature film focused on Debbie Downer, Pat, and Peripheral Vision Man. They just don’t have legs to carry them through the entire movie, no depth, no meaning.
Luckily, Hess has included a few characters that have at least the bare minimum amount of depth. Benjamin is highly sympathetic as a poor home-schooled geek who is continuously on the losing end of life. Angarano does a solid job, but there’s also not a ton past the usual everyman schtick to work with there. However, mood swings from tears to rage work well to show that the young actor has the range to tackle a part that actually has meat. The only other figure of any consequence is Chevaliar who is still mostly played for visual laughs. Clement does a fantastic job bringing the improvised funny and building on the persona of a character so pretentious that he wears a blue tooth headset without ever using it. It’s so fantastic in fact, that he’s basically the warm little comedy center that the rest of the movie clings desperately to.
Sam Rockwell does a great job, but his character is also ittle more than a site gag. He looks like he’s in the film because he lost a bet, but he’ll be damned if he won’t have a ton of fun with it now that he’s there.
Also, it’s important to note that Jennifer Coolidge emerges from the flatness of her character as a one-note punchline to deliver a few earned laughs, but that’s mostly a credit to her immense talent and not the writing.
The story itself probably should have been a shorter feature on its own. Instead, the science fiction tale Benjamin has written gets played out by Sam Rockwell as both Grizzly Adams in a spacesuit and a foppish Hulk Hogan depending on whether he’s in Benjamin’s version or the pilfered Chevaliar one. As its own movie, Yeast Lords might do well as an off-the-wall low budget science fiction. As its own movie, Benjamin’s story would make a compelling extended short. Together, they make little sense. The connective tissue is obviously there, but the intercut scenes with space hero Bronco (or Brutus under Chevaliar’s pen) become an annoyance while taking away from what could have been a more intricate, interesting story about a boy losing a childhood hero and learning to stand up for himself.
The formula for Hess’s comedy is a simple one that involves funny-looking people in clothing from the 1980s regardless of the time period. His style is a low-rent version of Wes Anderson, placing a higher value on things looking odd instead of looking correct. There’s a big difference between a world that looks funny and one that is funny, but Hess hasn’t learned that yet. With this film in particular, his style actually gets in the way of his storytelling. The fantasy sequences with Bronco have the same cheap look that the real world does – some of its elements look epic while others look awful. I understand it. A plastic deer with rockets glued to it and a little bad blue screen work look funnier than creating a straight-played version of a fantasy world that earns its laughs as a parody, but those segments needed something to dramatically delineate them from the Salvation Army reality of the real world.
And it’s that look that ultimately trips everything up. Hess is like an imaginative kid in a sandbox with no one telling him where to direct his skills. He hasn’t figured out which lines to color inside of so that coloring outside of them makes more of an impact. Instead, he makes things up, and having characters say and act as if they are real and widely known (Oh no! Battle Stags!) is half of the gag.
Above and beyond all that, the movie is fairly heartwarming simply because how tragic Benjamin’s life is. Despite any real characters, you’re begging for this kid to get a win by the end. I’m sure there will be fans of this movie who demand Chevaliar costumes for their candy-demanding holidays. There will be those who begin saying goodbye by putting their wrists together and bowing. There will be those who adopt Dusty’s slack-jawed stare. But no one will want to put “From the director of Gentlemen Broncos” in order to sell an upcoming flick.
I realize that starting out in the public eye with a cult hit is insanely difficult, but somehow Jared Hess has managed to get progressively worse with each follow-up.
The Upside: Jemaine Clement.
The Downside: Easy jokes and characters built on how funny they look; two stories that share a common unifying theme and yet still feel uneven; weird and quirky for weirdness and quirk’s sake.
On the Side: Many of the elements in the film, like the character who makes hundreds of low budget short films and trailers and the popcorn balls, come directly from Jared Hess’s experiences.