Thursday, March 4, 2010

Released Tuesday on DVD: "Gentlemen Broncos"

Grade: D-plus

Jared Hess may be the first filmmaker to be bored by his own freaks. Napoleon Dynamite barely got by on the novelty of its ticked-off nerd hero and flattened sense of Middle American gothic, and it was genial enough to pick up a cult of school kids and adolescents who are always on the lookout for weird stuff, the better to peck it to pieces.

What are we to make of Gentleman Broncos, though — a comedy that can’t even admit its own overwhelming sense of disgust? Once again a misfit teenager is at the heart of it: Michael Angarano as Benjamin Purvis, a shy kid who lives in Utah in a geodesic dome with his fashion-deluded mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and writes epic science-fiction novels in a state of repressed sexual panic.

His latest opus is titled Yeast Lords and we regularly dive into its pages to see it played out as a joyfully dreadful sci-fi film, with Sam Rockwell cast as Benjy’s macho hero Bronco. (Remember the 1974 Sean Connery flop Zardoz? Like that with lousier hair.) These scenes are almost the best part of Gentlemen Broncos — a consistently crummy homage to the works of Ed Wood mixed with pure hormonal angst.

The very best part of the movie would be Jemaine Clement, from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, as Dr. Ronald Chevalier, a mega-selling sci-fi novelist and full-time prat who suggests Saturday Night Live comedian Fred Armisen’s impersonation of Carl Sagan in all his turtleneck-wearing Mensa-geek glory. Coming upon Benjy’s manuscript at a teen writers’ conference, Chevalier swipes it, renames the characters, and has another hit. What will the boy do?

Not a lot, it turns out. If Gentlemen Broncos has any dramatic arc at all, it’s Benjy slowly coming out of his passive shell — so slowly that you may not buy it when it finally happens. Hess is another of those filmmakers who enjoys piling woe upon his heroes in the form of obnoxious supporting characters: a user of a love interest (Halley Feiffer), a mincing and bizarrely grimacing Latino rich kid (Hector Jimenez) who wants to turn Yeast Lords into his own video production. (He’s this movie’s Pedro and exactly as desperate as that sounds.)

The writer-actor-director Mike White shows up in one scene as an anemic longhair named Dusty with a white anaconda wrapped around his shoulders. The snake defecates explosively on his shirt. Hess gets his gross-out shock-laugh but the moment sums up the general approach: Collect a group of oddballs and take a dump on them. He and his wife/co-writer Jerusha create such cartoons you can’t even bring yourself to dislike them — they’re simply there to be gawked at.

Angarano is a fine young actor but he’s left stranded by the material, his expression a mask of stricken despair. Clement is a delight whenever he’s onscreen; even his voice — a ripe parody of Michael York’s — is funny. The true star of Gentlemen Broncos, though, may be its kitchy picture-postcard production design.

In other words, it looks a lot like Napoleon Dynamite. Hess’s movies take place in an alternate America in which the ‘80s and ‘90s never seemed to have happened and where the polyester awfulness of the 1970s just kept progressing geometrically. That’s a neat satirical idea but in this filmmaker’s hands, it’s a dead end, because there’s no larger vision behind it. There’s not even a tiny vision. (There’s a moral, though, both timeworn and banal: Stick to your guns. Oh, and be nice to your mom.)

Other directors see the world as one unending freak show and they’re a problematic but mostly worthy bunch: Fellini, David Lynch, Christopher Guest, Tim Burton, John Watters, Todd Solondz, the Coen brothers (whose A Serious Man makes Gentlemen Broncos look like the work of a child). They caricature their fellow humans with varying degrees of fondness and spite, humor and surrealism. At the very least, they’re genuinely curious about their misfits; at best, they can flood you with sympathy. Hess just chortles blankly and moves on, and so should you.

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