By Peter Hall (reprinted from 9/28/09 -- Fantastic Fest review)
Quirkiness only carries so far. Napoleon Dynamite, the film that ushered in the career of Gentlemen Broncos director Jared Hess, is enjoyable because it cherishes the nervous twitches of puberty, identity crisis, and the weird kind of people who worship at Walmart strip malls. The director embraced his small-town roots to assemble a film in love with those who don't have any station in life, who have no big conflict in their mundane lives, and who have no particularly interesting story to tell, either. Hess' latest film, on the other hand, does have an interesting story to tell and it does have a three-act conventional conflict, but it barrels past being quirky into the weird-for-weird's-sake hinterland of comedy where subtlety is abolished in favor of broad, hit-and-miss gags.
Gentlemen Broncos could have been great. It's about a teenage boy (Michael Angarano) whose fantasy novel featuring an underdog hero on a nonsensical planet (Sam Rockwell) is stolen by not only his washed-up hero author (Jemaine Clement) at a crash-course writing camp, but two insufferable "friends" who want to turn the story into their cinematic gateway to Hollywood. The film often wanders out of the real-world of poor Benjamin's unenviable life and into the entertaining fantasy world of his childish writings, but for the most part it feels as directionless as the confused boy we're supposed to be rooting for.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the plot, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with its three biggest cast members, yet the end product is the film equivalent of a 13-year old's robotripping fever-dream about cyborg Battle Stags (deers with rocket launchers on their sides), creepy "Guardian Angels" (Mike White), terrible science-fantasy writers, pooping snakes, rock-hard balls of popcorn, mamma's boy angst, and a character whose only contribution to the intended jokes on-hand is always looking like someone has shoved an invisible leaf blower into his mouth.
If you're in the market for a mindless movie that makes about as much sense as the bizarre fantasy world at its core, Gentlemen Broncos is all well and dandy. Things open promisingly, but after a few jokes go on way too long, and the audience starts to acclimate to the palpable awkwardness inherent to the way Hess approaches some mildly crude material that would have been too risky for the PG-rated likes of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, the script (co-written by Jared and his wife Jerusha Hess) never finds the gears necessary to gain momentum towards any destination of substance.
However, the lack of substance is made tolerable by a wonderful cast. Michael Angarano has the difficult task of being our largely-speechless anchor to the film, but the young Sky High and Lords of Dogtown actor pulls it off despite his material being the least-comedic of the big three. Sam Rockwell is a blast as the star of the fantasy portions of the film, even if he is basically doing an impression of himself as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And then of course we have the great Jemaine Clement, the "Flight of the Conchords" star who radiates humor as if he was born on Planet Joketropa and our yellow sun gives him the power of perpetual laughs. That man could read my parents' obituaries and I'd still find everything he does hysterical.
It's no surprise, then, that his delivery of the dreadfully untalented sci-fantasy writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier is easily the best part of the film. It's no small accolade to say that his performance makes up for the other woefully grating characters in orbit of Angarano's Benjamin, but even his powers of comedic persuasion are not enough to convince the audience Gentlemen Broncos is as funny as Hess thinks it is. It's unclear whether or not he's attempting to satirize bad fantasy novels and writers or whether he thinks they're actually funny because of how bad they are, but either way his attempt to make them relevant to the story at large falls short of any lasting humor.
And that may have been Hess' goal. He may have wanted to make a movie that jumps around like a 13 year old in need of medication. He may have wanted to make a movie that feels like a live-action Adult Swim cartoon flirting with the funny before bedding down with the silly. He may have even wanted to make a movie with no uniform comedic style, but just because there's clear evidence that this is the movie his inner fantasy geek would have loved as a kid, doesn't mean he's made something the inner fantasy geek of adults are going to enjoy past the 30-minute mark.
There is no denying, though, that seeing Sam Rockwell ride a fake deer shooting rockets out of all its orifices is the answer to a dream I never realized I had. If only Gentlemen Broncos had more characters and character actors like Rockwell and less people like the leaf-blower-in-mouth guy...