I wasn’t quite sure how I felt after watching Jared and Jerusha Hess’s latest film “Gentleman Broncos.” There were moments in the film where I was absolutely dying with laughter and then there were other moments were I felt strange, a bit awkward and wasn’t really sure what to think. It wasn’t until days later that I started to re-think what I had seen and slowly began to enjoy it. That’s not to say that it is not worth seeing, on the contrary, I think it is the type of film that you need to see several times before you begin to understand it and really enjoy it. Not unlike the Coen Brothers’ classic “The Big Lebowski” it is a movie that you really have to work at and I do appreciate that, I appreciate that it challenged me to be engaged in the film.
I wasn’t a huge fan of their last two movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre” although I liked the latter better I always had the feeling that I just didn’t get it. That I didn’t get what everyone else thought was so funny. Like I wasn’t cool or hip enough to understand it, like I was missing something. But this film did resonate with me in a way that makes me want to recommend the movie to others with this warning: IT”S A PRETTY STRANGE AND WEIRD LITTLE FILM. That being said, the Hess’ along with producer and co-star Mike White have created a provocative and at times heartwarming movie that’s third act payoff is worth any unbearable uncomfortable ness that one might feel throughout this odd and quirky yet clever little film.
The movie takes place in Utah and centers around a seventeen year-old home schooled aspiring Science Fiction writer named Benjamin played by Michael Angarano. When Benjamin finds out that his idol, sci-fi legend Dr. Ronald Chevalier (the ridiculously funny Jermaine Clement), is teaching at a near by writers camp for kids he decides to attend and takes along his manuscript, “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years.” At camp he makes friends with budding romance novelist Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and adolescent auteur filmmaker Lonnie, played by Hector Jimenez, who has more than eighty so-called “films” to his credit. Tabatha convinces a reluctant Benjamin to enter his book in a contest that Chevalier is judging himself. Chevalier who is suffering from writer’s block and is at risk of loosing his book deal likes Benjamin’s manuscript so much that he decides to steal it for his own.
After camp Benjamin returns home to his loving Mother, an excentrant nightgown designer who constantly makes “popcorn balls” played brilliantly by Jennifer Coolidge and his creepy “guardian angel” wonderfully played by Mike White. Unknowing of Chevalier’s deception, Benjamin eventually agrees to let Lonnie make a film based on his script. What follows is a life lesson for Benjamin about the dangers of the entertainment business as he slowly watches his idea morphed by the film into something drastically different and Chevalier’s bastardized version of the story published as a hit book. In the end Benjamin has to confront his adversaries and his own fears in order to grow as a person and find his place in the world. The film cleverly cuts back and forth between different versions of “Yeast Lords” from all three perspectives, Benjamin’s original script, Chevalier’s version that changes the main character into a transvestite and Lonnie’s film version. The extraordinary Sam Rockwell plays the fictional story’s main character wonderfully spoofing his own sci-fi body of work.
Coolidge plays the role of Benjamin’s Mother with the trademark kookiness that has made her famous but it’s her tender moments with her son where her true talent as an actress shines through transcending this easily marginalized “whacky character” into a warm and fully dimensional person. Sam Rockwell, who gave the performance of a lifetime earlier this year in another sci-fi film called “Moon,” is equally strong here as the lead in the fictional story within the story and plays his character with a certain zest that indicates to the audience he is fully aware of the ridiculousness of his role but his having fun committing to it none-the-less. Actor/Producer Mike White is particularly weird as Benjamin’s friend and so-called “guardian angel” and plays the odd character in such a loving way that it compels you to really get behind an otherwise strange and unlikable person.
But it is the “Flight Of The Conchords” Jermaine Clement who really shines in his unique performance as the bizarre Dr. Chevalier. Clement seems to be almost doing an impression of “Logan’s Run” actor Michael York which gives his character a creepy aura and a very funny accent. Fans of his TV show will be happy with his performance and role in the film while it’s clear that the comedian can handle carrying a film like this as the lead. He is an extremely funny person, almost not having to say a word at times to crack you up, so it will be interesting to see if he is excepted by a mainstream audience but he’s definitely one up and coming actor worth keeping an eye on.
I think that at the heart of things sometimes it comes down to the actor playing the lead and is he likable or not? Can an audience get behind him and like him? Although I think Angarano does his best in his role, I just couldn’t get into it. I didn’t care about him as much as I would of if a more likable actor such as Michael Cera or Anton Yelchin were playing the role. I don’t blame Angarano, this was bad casting I don’t think he was ready for a part this crucial in a film. His awkwardness in the role, while the filmmakers trademark, came off to “sad-sacked” and becomes uninteresting to watch at points. He does bring the goods in the end and packs an emotional punch that brings home the final act but it could be too little too late, as you may have already lost interest in the character by this point. It’s a role that should really pop and resonate the way Jason Schwartzman did in “Rushmore” and Angarano just doesn’t cut it for me in this role.
Again, I’m not sure if I get the joke with actor Hector Jimenez. The Hess’ used him in their last film, “Nacho Libre,” where he seems more in place than he does in this film. The actor has an odd trademark look that looks like he is purposely stretching out his lips the way a young child would that could propel his Mother to say, “Don’t make that face or God will freeze it like that.” At any rate it seems like stunt casting to a degree and the actor’s odd domineer just doesn’t work for me here. I will say that the script by Jared and Jerusha Hess is definitely original and not like anything I’ve seen before and Hess’ direction, often allowing very uncomfortable moments to play out for comedic effect, works quite well. Although not everything works here I will say that these filmmakers take a big swing with this and you have to respect that. This movie is pretty out there and works at times and at others kind of misses but is always original and true to it’s self. The sci-fi scenes from the book are played out in a hilarious way with wonderful low-budget effects that plays up the ridiculous humor of the situation.
In the end I have mixed feelings about “Gentlemen Broncos” and I’m afraid most audiences will too. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. Maybe audiences will gravitate to this film and love it like they did with “Napoleon Dynamite” but I fear that that was a once in a lifetime phenomenon and not likely to occur again. I think the film is so out there that it may be polarizing to some. I really wanted to like this movie and at times felt lost and left out in the cold by the inside-jokes. Ultimately I think that this is a movie that you need to take home with you in your mind. You may not laugh at everything in the film but you will days later as you replay them in your head. That’s why I think the movie will do quite well on DVD and when it plays repeatedly on syndicated television in the future, when audiences can relive all the odd nuances over and over again and get used to this strange and originally creative world that the Hess’ have created. I recommend that fans of the Hess’ previous films see this in theaters as I think that they will not be disappointed by the movie however others should be warned that the film will challenge you to think and that if you are not prepared to use your brain while you are watching you may not enjoy the film. For that reason alone I think “Gentlemen Broncos” is a movie worth seeing and if you find bizarre and awkward moments to be extremely humorous than this is definitely the film for you.