Almost universally deplored last year, Jared Hess’ “Gentlemen Broncos” is far from a self-immolating indie-comedy disaster, but neither is it, as New Yorker film editor Richard Brody maintains, one of 2009’s best films. Honestly, it’s just different, like an idiot child who dresses funny or a spinster who gives all of her cats the same name, and the film’s idiosyncratic personality simply seemed to rub most people the wrong way. (It doesn’t help that the title is off-puttingly dull and irrelevant.) Brody, who even pitched for it on NPR, apparently got rubbed nicely, thank you.
Like his debut “Napoleon Dynamite,” Hess’ movie doesn’t explore all-American geekdom so much as drop you into alien territory and let you fend for yourself. But this time, the terrain isn’t just a high school in the quirky midlands, and we don’t have Jon Heder’s toothsome monster nebbish to laugh at. It’s all quite a bit stranger.
Parse this plot arc: our hero, Benjamin (Michael Angarano), is a nervous, penniless home-schooled Utah kid who writes sci-fi fantasy fiction with titles like “Yeast Lords” from the geodesic-dome house he shares with his cretinous nightgown-designing mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and her boyfriend, a dim-witted thug/”guardian angel” with a loose-boweled white python (Mike White), and goes off to a writers’ camp and gets his handwritten novel stolen by a ludicrously pompous sci-fi author (Jemaine Clement), even as a queeny hack filmmaker in Salt Lake City decides to make it into a no-budget video…
You’re never sure in “Gentlemen Broncos” what the hell is being made fun of, but the fact is, it’s funny in a bizarre non-sequitur-saturated kind of way. I don’t know why Coolidge’s ditzy mom tries to sell giant balls of stale popcorn (two in a bag, scrotally), for instance, but the running joke of having to break them apart with hammer-to-the-piggy-bank force worked on me.
Meanwhile, we’re offered vivid mini-movie depictions throughout of “Yeast Lords” (subtitled, for reasons known only to Hess, “The Bronco Years”) as it presumably appears in its author’s mind’s eye, complete with taxidermied-deer battle-bots, dune-buggy cyclops armies, fluorescent skies, a running interstellar contention about yeast (which is sometimes vomited up in defensive pink geysers), and Sam Rockwell as a Texas-accented mountain man/space warrior. Don’t ask me.
There’s almost nothing in Hess’ script (co-written, as always, with wife Jerusha) that makes clear satirical sense — the slice of America it lunches on is so distinctive that it’s unfamiliar to most of us. Which can be a blast — I’ve never been to a fantasy writers’ camp, but Hess’ rip through this terrarium’s norms and gestures is a riot, and Clement, with his lizard eyes and plummy what-the-fuck-is-that-accent, shreds the pretentious William Gibson-Neil Gaiman-Alan Moore-Neal Stephenson pulp demigod into little pieces. (The “master’s class” we see him teach is hilariously focused only on “crafting” gladiator-ish character names — a student names a troll in her story “Teacup,” and Clement’s withering jerk practically has an aneurysm.)
Without the context of the hype and expectations around its theatrical release, it’s hard not to like “Gentlemen Broncos,” because you never know what it’ll throw at you, and because genuine eccentricity in Hollywood comedies is as uncommon as genuine wit. In fact, the meme-crazy cult following that attached itself to “Napoleon Dynamite” could well sprout around this one as well, in time.