Review: Gentlemen Broncos
The following film was reviewed as part of Fantastic Fest
PLOT: Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a young, aspiring writer living with his mother weaving bizarre sci-fi tales. After meeting his idol Dr. Ronald Chevalier at a writing camp, Benjamin submits his story Yeast Lords on the off chance that is selected in a publishers contest for limited printing and release. Instead, he has his story stolen by the good doctor, has his life invaded by a guardian angel and becomes wrapped up in a non-romance that leads to yet another version of his sci-fi work. Through all of this we are treated to scenes from the many versions of Benjamins story whose protagonist is portrayed by Sam Rockwell.
REVIEW: You will of course remember Jared Hess for NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and his less remembered sophomore effort NACHO LIBRE. Well here he strikes gold. I want to immediately get something out of the way and admit I was not a fan of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. However, I enjoyed GENTLEMEN BRONCOS so much I really am considering giving it another shot. Judging this film on its own merits, though, it is clear that Hess has created a film that maintains his beyond-quirky characters while striking a rapport with the audience and creating a contrary set of expectations. We are not just laughing at the antics on-screen, but were also engaging in their bizarre universe(s). What I find so inane about my writing that line is that Hess does everything he can to disengage the audience from any vehicle of emotional weight that the film had the possibility of piloting.
If you watch the trailer for GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, you have a good two-thirds of the plot in your mind-pocket before you set foot into the theater. There is a final component: the previously mentioned third version of Benjamins story and the central, female character (Halley Feiffer) in that subplot. Like all other relationships in the film, it is a skeleton of stereotypes we have come to expect from young love interests that never fleshes out and, frankly, is never resolved. Additionally, very little pretext is added by way of Benjamins history. We know, or think we know, that he adores his bearded father and he puts up with his mother with a certain degree of love but we dont know to what degree either relationship drives his choices. Nor does it matter by the time the film finishes.
If you stopped reading after the above paragraph, you will be leaving thinking this is a negative review. However, it was all just a setup. This movie is hilarious and extremely fun and very good. What Hess has done here is created a film that takes all of those familiar plot threads and relationships and removes the boring parts so that the core story (boy versus hero) can move along at breakneck pace. While it most certainly prevents any sort of emotional attachment, the film establishes early on that this is not one of its goals. Benjamin remains stoic and uninterested in joining in on the quirky behavior of every character around him.
If Benjamin is going to take this ride in stride, then so should we, the audience. And really, do we need another movie with a love interest thrown in for good measure so we can have an additional 10 minutes of screen time dedicated to tossing awkward glances and building up to a dry kiss? Hess says no quite firmly here where he makes clear that, because these characters will not influence Benjamins life, we are not going to give them the chance and were certainly not going to give them any sort of finality. The only relationship that grows in the film is that of Benjamin and his mother. Even with that, though, because we dont have context and history of their time prior to the films events, it is not clear that we should even appreciate the changes.
With all that being said, I laughed (belly laughed!) throughout this entire film. Of course the highlight will be the Sam Rockwell as Bronco/Brutus enactments of Benjamins story. Hess directs these scenes with such a low-budget, high-spirited glee and Rockwell is so free to carry his performance to whichever heights he chooses one cant help but wonder what a full-length Yeast Lords movie would be like. I lean towards the probability that it would become tiring but the short bits we get here are pure cinematic gold. Other performances are equally great for Hess strange characters: Jennifer Coolidge as Benjamins mother and Mike White as Benjamins guardian angel (through a church program the movie isnt THAT weird) are both hilarious and have one of their own go-nowhere, do-nothing character arcs this movie is full of. The one character that started to get too over the top was that of young filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jimenez) he was just a little TOO weird for this viewer. But he serves his purpose in a few delightful ways so he cant be completely faulted.
Also of note is the use of Ray Lynch music for some of the scenes in the story world. If you dont know Ray Lynch, hes a classically trained musician who, back in the 90s, composed some pretty surreal tunes by mashing up classical instrumentation and electronics. These days, his music fits perfectly as a hokey soundtrack to these scenes, but theres still a beautiful and accomplished feel to those bits of music and I couldnt help but smile when I realized how amazingly perfect they were here.
So whats it all about? Its about not mattering what its about or who its about. At the surface it is a movie about bad science-fiction told through what would appear to be a bad movie about bad characters (with no history, no growth and no endings to their arcs) and bad versions of a kids bad sci-fi story. But if thats the point, dont we start to jive with the chaotic, wandering antics of it all and start to see a small bit of genius in the goings-on? I certainly did. Evoking Wes Andersons daunting attention to set designs and color pallets, this is wholly Hess world and just as he does with the universe hes created, he creates a field of play for this quaint exercise in comedy. This movie is the coming-of-age story where nobody comes-of-age. Its the love story where theres no love. Its the sci-fi movie that neither shows any incredibly deep appreciation for sci-fi nor any disdain. The movie just is. And what it is is fun and highly recommended.