(by Dustin Putman
Fans of 2004's charmingly zonky "Napoleon Dynamite" and 2006's underappreciated gem "Nacho Libre" will be pleased to know that filmmaker Jared Hess and co-writer wife Jerusha Hess haven't missed an offbeat step with their third feature together, "Gentlemen Broncos." Unfortunately, unless they live in New York, Los Angeles, and a handful of other scattered major markets, it looks as if most of them will have to wait until this one hits DVD and Blu-Ray. Distributor Fox Searchlight recently cancelled the picture's intended wide release and look to have no plans to expand it further. Granted, "Gentlemen Broncos" is an acquired taste, but its stringent adherence to staying true to itself is one of its most admirable attributes—and, ironically, one of the reasons it is getting the theatrical cold shoulder. Article continues below
In the town of Saltair, Utah, and far beyond, 17-year-old aspiring science-fiction writer Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is about as ordinary as they come. Freaks and oddballs surround him from all corners—that's just a way of life in writer-director Hess' realm—and so, during his bus ride to a youth writing camp called Cletus Fest, he thinks nothing of it when Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) asks him to massage a half-pound of moisturizer into her hand while her teeth-gridding friend of indeterminate race, age and sex, Lonnie Donaho (Héctor Jiménez), taunts her with sexualized "oohs" in her ear. One of the most absurdly funny moments in a film this year, this scene, if for nothing else, is worth seeing. Once at camp, Benjamin is thrilled when famed sci-fi author and keynote speaker Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) announces a contest that will find one attendee's story officially published. Benjamin enters his latest novella, "Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years," and then returns to his average life living with wannabe fashion designer mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) and working alongside her at a nightwear store at the mall. Just as shoestring director Lonnie and assistant Tabatha prepare to adapt "Yeast Lords" into their latest low-budget feature, Benjamin has no idea that Chevalier, having come upon his story at camp and changed the character names and title, is about to publish a plagiarized version under his own name.
Quirky supporting characters and dryly ridiculous humor are the bread and butter of "Gentlemen Broncos," an uneven comedy that gets high scores for the amount of laughs it does provide. Next to everyone else, hero Benjamin Purvis is rather bland and unpronounced until he hits his stride in the third act and becomes an active participant in the plot's progression. At this point, the viewer wants to see him prevail and call the pretentious Chevalier out on his illegal wrongdoing, but before it actor Michael Angarano (2008's "Snow Angels") looks a little lost. The rest of the cast, however, appear to be right at home. Jennifer Coolidge (2008's "Soul Men"), getting a rare role of substance rather than a walk-on part, is a lovable delight as Benjamin's caring mother, Judith, who has named her new monstrous fashion line "Decent Beginnings" as a ploy to reach the younger demographics. Héctor Jiménez (2007's "Epic Movie") is a delirious force of nature as Lonnie Donaho, his very appearance fall-down hilarious before he has even had time to speak. Jimenez's one-of-a-kind creation is some kind of masterpiece. As Benjamin's abrasive would-be love interest Tabatha, Halley Feiffer (2007's "Margot at the Wedding") has a bewitching presence with sharp comedic timing. And as the conniving, ego-centric, but secretly cowardly Chevalier, Jemaine Clement (TV's "Flight of the Conchords") puts on a silly accent and goes to town, hitting bull's eye after bull's eye. When he instructs his wide-eyed pupils at Cletus Fest on the value of adding the proper suffixes to the end of sci-fi character names, it's a very funny moment among many others.
Sporadic visual interludes into Benjamin's "Yeast Lords" story are the weak point. No fault of a wasted Sam Rockwell (2009's "Moon"), starring as the fictionalized Bronco come to life, but these scenes incorporate chintzy effects and over-the-top acting that play like intentional "Mystery Science Theater 3000" fodder. Thus, they lessen the impact of a plot that revolves around the prospect that Benjamin's novella is genuinely good. Cutting all of these in exchange for strengthening the lead role of Benjamin would have been preferable.
"Gentlemen Broncos" goes overboard a few times into cheap gross-out humor—a kiss involving upchuck would have been wise to be excised—but more often than not the comedy is of a smarter, tarter tone. The film's heart is a big one and the focal point of Benjamin achieving his dream and consequently allowing his mother to achieve hers is sweet-natured and feel-good. Music choices are additionally inspired (e.g., Zager and Evans' "In the Year 2525;" Scorpions' "Wind of Change;" Cher's "Just Like Jesse James"). Audiences turned off by people and material safely outside of the mainstream will have no patience for the pleasures "Gentlemen Broncos" has to offer. My assessment? Normal is overrated.