With Napoleon Dynamite, writer-director Jared Hess seemed to announce himself as a film-making find with an entertainingly quirky sensibility.
With Nacho Libre, however, Hess stumbled badly, creating a film that attempted to work the same faux naïf vein as Napoleon Dynamite, with a fraction of the laughs. And he wasted the volcanic Jack Black in the process.
So I approached Gentlemen Broncos as a tie-breaker of sorts, the movie that would demonstrate which of his first two films was the fluke and which the more accurate indicator of his ability.
Apparently Napoleon Dynamite was the happy accident. A flat, self-consciously mannered film, Gentlemen Broncos wants to have it both ways. It wants the audience to laugh at the cheesy aesthetic of amateur aspiring artists, even as it offers its own amateurish version of a film comedy.
It's not just the chuckle-free writing or leaden pacing. Hess sprinkles a few real actors into a cast full of non-actors who recite lines rather than giving performances. He also makes sure that every last extra is homely or funny-looking, to the point of being misshapen. His is a world of freaks, who exist to be laughed at -- except there's nothing funny about them but their looks.
His lumpish hero is Ben Purvis (Michael Angarano), a home-schooled Utah nebbish who lives with a mother (Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to have suffered an undiagnosed head injury. Ben's passion is sci-fi/fantasy fiction -- reading it and writing it. Despite his wooden affect, Ben's obviously thrilled at the prospect of attending a teen writers' workshop, where he'll get to meet his favorite author, Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement of The Flight of the Conchords).
Chevalier is pure cliché: vain, preening, self-absorbed without being self-aware. But he's funny because he's played by Clement, with a dry-as-toast delivery that's much funnier than the material itself.
Hess' main plot focuses on Chevalier's theft of Ben's manuscript, Yeast Lords, which he publishes (with minor changes) under his own name. There's also a distracting -- and pointless -- subplot about amateur filmmakers in Ben's hometown, who option his story (with a post-dated check) to adapt into a ridiculously shoddy movie.
At various points, the painfully awful Yeast Lords gets three different visualizations, two of which star Sam Rockwell in unfortunate hairpieces, none of which is funny. Like Clement, Rockwell is miles better than the material.
Gentlemen Broncos winds up as a waste of time for everyone involved -- including you, if you make the mistake of seeing it.
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