Michael Angarano as Benjamin Purvis
John Baker as Don Carlos
Jemaine Clement as Dr. Ronald Chevalier
Sam Rockwell as Bronco / Brutus
Jennifer Coolidge as Judith
Halley Feiffer as Tabatha
Héctor Jiménez as Lonnie Donaho
Mike White as Dusty
Suzanne May as Vanaya / Venonka
Edgar Oliver as Duncan / Lord Daysius
Rod Decker as Rod Decker
Josh Pais as Todd Keefe
John Pleshette as Merve
Jeanette Puhich as Sherry
Clive Revill as Cletus
Directed by Jared Hess
“Gentlemen Broncos” is proof that lightning doesn’t strike twice… even if one makes every effort to replicate everything that made the initial lightning strike in the first place.
Teen Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) has a proclivity for writing science fiction but while attending Writing Camp, a famous sci-fi author named Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) steals his story for his latest novel, while at the same time, Benjamin has had his original story optioned by a local DIY filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Héctor Jiménez).
When Jared Hess came onto the scene with “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004, it was thought by many we were seeing the dawn of a new voice in comedy that might change the game. Five years later, Hess is back with his third film, one that harks back to his debut but one that forces the question whether Hess is capable of delivering a funny comedy without the likes of a Jon Heder or a Jack Black bolstering it. Those leaving the theater after watching “Gentlemen Broncos” might instead wonder how much crack Hess bought with his share of the profits from “Napoleon Dynamite” to think he could ever replicate that movie’s popularity with this dumb and convoluted disastrous mess.
“Gentlemen Broncos” starts out fine with our introduction to Michael Angarano’s Benjamin Purvis, a mopey loser who has found escape by writing sci-fi stories, his latest being a lovely ditty called “Yeast Lords.” After being shipped off to Writing Camp by his over-protective mother (Jennifer Coolidge), Benjamin meets the manipulative Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and her ever-present sidekick Lonnie–more on him later–though it’s his encounter with award-winning sci-fi author (and cover painter) Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) that will change Benjamin’s road to fame.
That’s the general premise and it sounds intriguing enough on paper, but the results are excruciating and unfunny, as Hess clearly seems to be stuck in a rut, forever living in the shadow of his debut, something blatantly obvious by the many similarities between the movies, at least in theme and tone. Besides centering on a loner, an outcast, it also delves into the strange and geeky obsessions of the type, including an interest in esoteric animals like llamas. Hess even uses some of the same locations from “Napoleon Dynamite” to drive home the point that this movie takes place in the same world and the school lunch motif of that movie’s title sequence is replaced by a series of funny sci-fi novel covers. In that sense, Benjamin might very well have been best friends with Napoleon Dynamite, except it’s painfully obvious that Michael Angarano is no Jon Heder and he’s unable to deliver a character as entertaining or interesting while playing a similar character who stands around and makes faces at adverse situations.
Just like “Napoleon Dynamite,” it’s all about the strange and wacky characters around our protagonist, although this time it doesn’t come naturally and it feels like Hess is trying too hard. New Zealand’s Jemaine Clement (“The Flight of the Conchords”) puts on a deep and pompous British accent as the condescending sci-fi author known as Chevalier, who does offer some of the movie’s best laughs even if it’s a characterization that gets old quickly. Hess collaborator Mike White shows up as Benjamin’s “guardian angel,” another white trash stereotype who has very little to say, and Jennifer Coolidge is Benjamin’s mother, another ditzy character with a suitably “Jaredhessian” quirk in the fact she designs colorful nightgowns.
The movie’s undoing comes from the amount of time it spends trying to recreate Benjamin’s (then Chevalier’s) space opera in scenes that have noticeably higher production values than the rest of the movie. In seeing these horrendously stupid stories brought to life, we realize how ridiculous the whole premise is. Maybe if Benjamin was writing semi-decent science fiction rather than sophomoric adolescent crap involving testicles and wilderness animals, we might be able to buy the premise that someone might steal the story, but the inanity of his writing is driven home when a local filmmaker starts doing his own low-budget adaptation of Benjamin’s story – an attempt that’s more incompetent than even the worst efforts in “Be Kind Rewind.”
And that brings us to Lonnie Donaho, the loathsome character played by Héctor Jiménez, essentially the lovechild of Napoleon and Pedro with the most abrasive personality one could ever imagine, an effeminate mop-topped guy of indeterminate age and ethnicity who talks in a monotonous drone and effectively could insult so many different races, creeds and sexual preferences. By comparison, Angarano actually comes off fairly scot-free by playing it straight, but he also plays the main role with so little personality, it’s hard to care.
Starring in both incarnations of the big budget space epic is Sam Rockwell, an actor who has been great in so many great films including the recent “Moon” and last year’s “Choke.” The dual roles of Bronco and Brutus could easily be seen as Rockwell’s “Norbit,” characters so deplorably dumb and revolting, Bronco might not be so bad, a similar gung-ho character to the role he played in the far-superior “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but under Chevalier’s guidance, he’s transformed into Brutus, a “tranny” with long blonde locks and beard that might make you want to stab out your own frontal lobe almost as much as Lonnie.
One can certainly understand what Hess was going for in terms of mocking sci-fi enthusiasts, but there have been far better movies that made fun of sci-fi geekdom, including much of Kevin Smith’s work, “Galaxy Quest” and even misfires like “Fanboys.” Hess could probably have made an entire movie set in the Writing Camp, rather than just using it as a catalyst for a story about plagiarism. Hess never even bothers to follow-through with the central plotline, having Benjamin discover the truth 15 minutes before the end and not bothering to show any of the legal proceedings looking into Chevalier’s theft.
Worst of all, Hess constantly resorts to the lowest form of humor to try to get laughs, whether it’s the ongoing references to testicles from the story-in-a-story or the amount of vomiting, use of dog crap as a weapon and there’s even a snake that sh*ts on cue. One would think a stronger filmmaker would work on developing stronger characters rather than resorting to this sot of low-brow gross-out humor, but it constantly makes it obvious there wasn’t a lot of thought put into this.
Instead, the movie constantly feels like the type of joke short two friends might make on the cheap using a home video camera to post on YouTube or FunnyOrDie–take a wild guess which one this would get–rather than something that deserves a feature-length movie, let alone one with any sort of significant budget.
Sure, every great filmmaker falters from time-to-time but “Gentlemen Broncos” seems to show that Jared Hess only has one trick up his sleeve, and it’s a trick that only works when teamed with far more talented people, whether it’s a stronger lead actor or a better co-writer.
The Bottom Line:
“Gentlemen Broncos” is an abysmal waste of time and talent, a movie that takes a weak premise that could barely sustain a short homemade movie, and tries to pump it up with the same quirky weirdos of Jared Hess’s popular earlier work. Since the results aren’t even remotely funny, that makes it an epic failure as a comedy.