The surprise success of “Napoleon Dynamite” earned writer/director Jared Hess some Hollywood clout, which he used to make “Nacho Libre,” a profitable but forgettable mixture of Hess’ deadpan buffoonery and Jack Black’s winking, self-aware slapstick. Black wasn’t a good fit for Hess’ style, so it’s heartening to see the filmmaker return to his “Napoleon Dynamite” roots with “Gentlemen Broncos,” a deeply weird movie that bears no signs of any interference from any Hollywood types. For better or worse, this is what comes out of Hess’ brain when he’s left to his own devices. Love it or hate it — and I can definitely understand why you would hate it — you won’t soon forget it.
It has nothing to do with “Napoleon Dynamite,” but it feels like a spiritual sequel to it, with the same outdated fashions, the same awkward actors who are barely acting, the same rural setting (Utah this time). It also has the same apparent attitude of mockery toward the characters, though it remains up for debate whether Hess (who co-writes with his wife, Jerusha Hess) is mocking them out of affection or disdain. Either way, no one in “Gentlemen Broncos” is very lovable. Fun to laugh at (or laugh with), sure. Endearing, not so much.
This is the story of Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), the home-schooled only child of a widow, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), who works at a modest-clothing store and designs her own line of unrevealing nightgowns. Benjamin writes fantasy and science-fiction stories about a rugged hero named Bronco (played in fantasy sequences by Sam Rockwell), a freedom fighter of the future whose gonads are stolen by an evil scientist. The name of Benjamin’s latest novella: “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years.” (Yeast is a prized commodity in Benjamin’s vision of the future.)
At a two-day camp for young writers, Benjamin meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), an insufferably pretentious but oft-published author who ends speeches with things like “May the glistening dome of the Borg Queen shine light upon us all.” Unbeknownst to his fans, Chevalier is having trouble getting his publisher to accept his latest work. But then he gets a copy of “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years,” Benjamin’s submission at the conference, and figures plagiarism is a victimless crime as long as the true author is a nobody.
Ah, but I have made it sound like there is more of a story than there is. Chevalier’s theft of Benjamin’s work doesn’t come into play until much later and is never the most important part of the film. Think of it as the “vote for Pedro” element, the thing that’s there just because movies are supposed to have plots. The real point here is to display an abundance of Hessian quirky misfits. Benjamin (who’s a little too normal to be leading this film) meets a couple new friends at the writers conference, Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez). Tabatha is presumptuous and socially awkward; Lonnie is an effeminate amateur filmmaker (he mostly makes trailers) whose vast, expressive mouth is constantly drawn into an amusing smile-frown. Benjamin also gets set up with a “guardian angel” (think Big Brother) named Dusty (Mike White), with a retro-white-trash hairdo, a pet snake, and a fondness for wearing an open jacket over a bare chest. Dusty also has a thing for Benjamin’s mom. Everyone uses cuss words like “dang,” “flippin’,” and “shoot.”
And yet, for as much as it resembles “Napoleon Dynamite,” it’s also … well, did I mention how deeply, deeply weird it is? I have seldom seen a movie with such a bizarre sense of humor and such a uniformly whacked-out aesthetic. The Bronco scenes are surreal, like Michel Gondry as seen through the eyes of a teenager with an overactive imagination. (They get even weirder when Lonnie re-imagines them as one of his movies.) The “real life” scenes are only a little less strange. Everyone is just slightly removed from normal, and the things they do — Judith has a thing with making, selling, and eating popcorn balls, for example — are pleasantly baffling.
I laughed a lot during the film, but it was rarely at something that had followed one of the usual comedy formulas. The closest thing to mainstream humor on display is Jemaine Clement’s (“Flight of the Conchords”) performance as the amusingly phony Chevalier. When I wasn’t laughing, I was often gaping slack-jawed at the singular eccentricity on display, probably making about the same face as my nephew here:
On a related topic, isn’t that picture adorable?
All comedy is subjective, but it’s especially so when the style is unorthodox. Either it tickles you or it doesn’t. “Gentlemen Broncos” worked for me, at least overall; even being on the same wavelength, I sometimes found the abundant quirkiness overwhelming. Your experience may be completely different. You’ll always remember Dusty’s snake, though.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )