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Our review of Gentlemen Broncos (Blu-Ray), published March 10th, 2010, is also available.
"Moon Fetus. A fetus is found on a moon base…that's the premise."—Dr. Ronald Chevalier
After the mainstream success of Napoleon Dynamite, Jared and Jerusha Hess have continued to make independent comedies about ugly characters decked out in gaudy clothes from Salvation Army's clearance rack. Gentlemen Broncos is perhaps their quirkiest film to date. It's also pretty dang funny.
Facts of the Case
Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano, The Forbidden Kingdom) is a home-schooled kid with aspirations of becoming a great science fiction author. He attends a weekend writer's workshop where he hopes to have his manuscript, "Yeast Lords," critiqued by legendary fantasy author Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords). Chevalier, strapped for an idea for his next novel, decides to steal "Yeast Lords" and publish it as his own.
Gentlemen Broncos is about as awkward of a comedy as you can get. It has the recurring themes found in previous Hess films like nerdy individualism, lo-fi creativity, and underdog success, but they're twisted and magnified in surprising new ways. If Nacho Libre was Jared Hess's attempt at mainstream filmmaking, then Gentlemen Broncos is a movie for his die-hard fans.
When it comes to presentation and direction, Broncos plays it fairly close to the pastel-patterned vest. The film's opening credits, featuring custom sci-fi paperbacks by artist David Lee Anderson, sets the tone: everything in this movie is faux-vintage cheese. The clothes, scenery, even the cars, are cobbled together from past decades—so much so that if it wasn't for Chevalier's unused-but-always-worn Bluetooth headset it'd be hard to pinpoint the story's time period. Like a Wes Anderson film, every detail feels planned and timed to exact specifications—every joke, every awkward pause, conducted by Jared and Jerusha Hess. Thankfully, their super-specific vision enhances the film, rather than hindering it.
Benjamin, the "central protag," is cold and introverted, but Angarano plays him with an underlying level of intelligence and sincerity. When Ben's not living in his sci-fi world, he's trying to help his mom pay the bills by hocking homemade nighties at the local craft show. He gets his funny moments (like when he dawns a nightgown to fend off a crazed businessman), but he's also the most grounded character in the film.
The one-dimensional weirdoes surrounding Ben make him stand out even more. His family consists of a popcorn ball-selling mother (Jennifer Coolidge, Best in Show) and Dusty (Mike White, School of Rock), a "Guardian Angel" mentor who looks like a reject from a '80s hair band. His friends, who he meets on the bus to writer's camp, are opportunistic con artists. Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez, Nacho Libre) is a VHS-based indie filmmaker, who convinces Ben to sell him the rights to "Yeast Lords" for a terrible big screen adaptation. His sidekick Tabatha (Halley Feiffer, The Squid and the Whale) is about as close to a femme fatale as Utah can muster. All of these bizarre folks feel like rehashes of characters found in previous Hess movies, and the subplot involving the Be Kind Rewind-esque filming of Ben's novel detracts from the more interesting and larger threat: Dr. Chevalier.
Chevalier, played with great otherworldliness by Jemaine Clement, steals every single scene in the movie. He speaks as if his nasal passages are filled with honey, and his pretentious attitude and Native American-chic clothing make him the perfect adversary/idol for the cowering Benjamin. His class on character names in science fiction is priceless, as are the titles for every book he's written ("Brain Cream," "Troll Hole," etc). Chevalier's depth as a character becomes apparent as he fights back guilt at every turn in order to reclaim his once faded authorial glory. It's tempting to wish he had more screen time; instead, we're allowed mere glimpses of his life in between Ben and the dueling worlds of "Yeast Lords."
Throughout Gentlemen Broncos, portions of Benjamin's (and subsequently Chevalier's) sci-fi opus unfold in elaborate narrative sequences. Sam Rockwell (Moon) turns in not one but two over-the-top performances as the heroic Bronco and as the oddly feminine Brutus. I loved the juxtaposition between Ben's and Chevalier's version of the story, as major characters and story elements change wildly between the two. This film within the film follows Brutus as he tries to foil the sinister Lord Daysius (Edgar Oliver) and his gang of moon buggy-riding Cyclopes, surveillance does, and battle steeds. It's all ridiculously creative, and injects a great bit of surrealism into an otherwise quiet indie comedy.
If all this sounds incredibly interesting, it is, so long as you're okay with enduring a glut of sophomoric jokes and played-out, uncomfortable pauses. When the film dares to defy its own conventions and one-dimensional characters, it offers up some hilarious, and quotable, material. It's just not as taught, or successful, as Nacho Libre.
Gentlemen Broncos has an acceptable, if somewhat inconsistent, technical presentation on DVD. I'm not sure how much of it was intentional, but much of the film has a muddy, lo-fi picture. The "Yeast Lords" sequences, on the other hand, are bright and colorful. The world Bronco inhabits looks like one of the paperback covers from the film's opening sequence, and the special effects are charmingly simple. The audio is adequate, and features a solid soundtrack that includes a well implemented "In the Year 2525" by Zager and Evans.
The disc features an average assortment of supplements. The commentary track with director/writer Jared Hess, co-writer Jerusha Hess, and Director of Photography Munn Powell is dry, but does offer some good chuckles and insights. The "making of" featurette, called One Nutty Movie, is a standard, but fun, look at the production. There's also a nice assortment of deleted scenes and bloopers. Sadly, none of the great viral marketing for the film, including material from Dr. Chevalier's website, made it on to the disc. What's here is welcomed, but ultimately generic.
If you hated Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, then there's nothing for you here. Gentlemen Broncos offers more of the same at a much higher concentration. That said, the film shows that Hess is progressing into a larger scope of storytelling, weaving together not only different plotlines, but different worlds. Sure the film can feel unfocused at times, and some of the characters are one-dimensional repeats, but when the movie takes risks it pays off.
Plus, you can never have too many bumbling Cyclopes riding around on moon buggies.
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