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It's the nature of the movie business to occasionally see a film avoid a theatrical release. But a feature killed mid-release? A rare move. So went the fate of "Gentlemen Broncos," which marched into a limited release last autumn anticipating box office riches, only to be rebuffed by malicious reviews and low ticket sales. Suddenly press screenings and a flag-waving national rollout of the picture were canceled, with Fox Searchlight yanking the film from further exhibition. It was an embarrassment.
Having finally viewed the picture, I wonder why there was so much venom pointed at what's actually a finely deranged, sillyhearted satire of sorts. It's difficult to pick up on a majority of the nightmarish qualities that were promised in the initial wave of response.
Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a meek home-schooled kid who loves to write sci-fi novels, dreaming of the day when he's published next to his idol, acclaimed genre author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Taking his epic story "Yeast Lords" to a writing convention, Benjamin enters the book into a competition that Chevalier is helping to judge. Returning home to his supportive clothing designer mother (Jennifer Coolidge), Benjamin finds pals Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) planning to make a homegrown movie out of "Yeast Lords." However, Benjamin's world is soon crushed into a fine mist of hopelessness when he learns Chevalier has plagiarized his work and set out on a tour to sweep up accolades he hasn't earned.
"Gentlemen Broncos" is the latest film from Jared Hess, director of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Nacho Libre." The mere mention of the two previous pictures should paint an accurate portrait of where the new picture's interests are rooted, taking audiences back into a dryly unsophisticated world of affected actorly behavior, small-town style (or lack thereof), and bizarre flourishes of imagination.
Opening with a marvelous title sequence that showcases tributes to the great cover art of dime-store sci-fi novels (skillfully employing the song "In the Year 2525" by Zager and Evans), "Gentlemen Broncos" announces itself as a loving tribute to the pulp tales of faraway lands and impossible to pronounce character names. The script is actually divided up into two sections: Benjamin's plight and the crystal world of "Yeast Lords," where hero Bronco (Sam Rockwell) tears around the galaxy looking for his lost gonad, ready to stop a herpetic villain who rules the yeast-rich land with an army of Cyclops and flying, heavily armed stags. It's a bit of visual juggling the film handles exceedingly well, with the foolish Bronco material allowing Hess to have fun with the genre and all of its wonderful absurdities.
Back on Earth, the story of Benjamin is fitted snugly with Hess's itchy imagination, where characters are clad in weird retro clothes (perhaps Utah is still waiting for disco to hit), lack decent hair care products, and stick to a variety of flea market arts and crafts. It's an unplucked "Napoleon Dynamite" rural riff Hess delights in arranging, which could register to some as mockery, but it comes across as infatuation and ultimately adoration in the picture; a simple-minded resourcefulness that helps to restore Benjamin's honor when he needs it the most. Of course, to drill to the heart, it takes a strong navigation of sweaters, metal hair, and acid-washed jeans, but the aesthetic is followed through to the end by the filmmaker, who's fixated on whatever weirdness he can devour.
While the visual sense of Benjamin and Bronco is laid out cleanly, the narrative is often left in a disconcerting heap. The general tug of war between our hero and Chevalier is barely wound, with Hess tending to far too many side adventures before he's ready to dig into the plagiarism plot. Oddly, Benjamin only learns of the creative thievery 20 minutes before the picture ends, which speaks directly to the disjointed nature of the tale and the overall inconsequence that tethers the whimsy to the ground. "Gentlemen Broncos" is best appreciated as a goofball piece of sci-fi affection, otherwise the lack of urgency might lead to serious viewer frustration.
Rising above the screenplay's indecision is the cast, with special attention paid to Clement as the pompous windbag Chevalier. Strapping on a Michael York-type accent to inflate the character's sense of regality, Clement is a scream as the thief, clad in a Bluetooth and Native American influence to accentuate his superiority. In a film of supreme quirk, Clement lands the most sustained note of comedy, inhabiting the oddness entirely, making the most out of his screentime. Also fun is Rockwell as Bronco, who plays the character as a butch, bearded warrior in Benjamin's version and as queeny champion (think Paul Lynde by way of Edgar Winter) in Chevalier's imagination. Rockwell makes for a swell intergalactic hero, giving himself entirely to Hess's ridiculous vision for future war.
The AVC encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) gracefully sustains the oddball efforts of the film. Divided up between Benjamin's reality and the fantastical world of Bronco, the BD bounces back and forth without any jarring visual transitions, capturing the handmade ornamentation and the space-ace heroics, which look excellent, popping with clear blue skies and multicolored jumpsuits. Detail is superior all around (the title sequence, with a succession of creased paperbacks, is a highlight), which perhaps isn't as welcome when the poop starts flying. Regardless of fecal dimension, the disc looks solid and enjoyably pronounced.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix offers superb fidelity for soundtrack cuts, which end up carrying the film to special emotional moments. Bottom-end is on the light side, only resonating during Bronco's combat sequences. Dialogue (and all those funny accents) is crisply delivered and always discernable, even when the chaos is dialed up. Sound effects, with assorted laser blasts and the roar of the flying stags, bring a rich dimensionality to the track, employing the surrounds wonderfully. It's a more active track than the average comedy BD event, with the strange Hess world elegantly arranged here. Spanish and French tracks are also offered.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
The feature-length audio commentary with director/co-writer Jared Hess, co-writer Jerusha Hess, and cinematographer Munn Powell takes a few moments to reach a comfortable level of activity. The participants aren't prepared, but they wind their way slowly through the track, commenting confidently on the peculiarity and their creative inspirations. The track was recorded before the theatrical release, so there's an upbeat vibe to the conversation that's somewhat uncomfortable, but welcome. Perhaps not the most informative track possible, it's interesting to hear how much of this nonsense was actually pulled from Hess's real life.
"One Nutty Movie: Behind the Scenes of 'Gentlemen Broncos'" (15:29) is a marvelous document of the film shoot, with plenty of BTS details (gnat infestation!) and a generous tone of humor. The featurette eschews bland interviews for a fly-on-the-wall presentation, taking the viewer through the production without the weight of promotion.
"Mini-Docs" (23:45) are 18 promotional featurettes that include BTS footage, cast and crew interplay, and in-character bits.
"Deleted Scenes" (5:53) present more VHS filmmaking accomplishment, with a racier tone added. Extended moments with Rockwell and an unfinished flying stag showdown are also included.
"Outtakes" (8:48) is a hilarious reel of mix-em-ups and tomfoolery from the shoot, with an emphasis on the actors giggling up a storm.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Disappointing is the film's reliance on gross-out humor to get by during dry patches, with scenes of snake diarrhea and puke-mouth smooching killing the charming Pollyanna carriage of the piece. Hess doesn't need deplorable shock value to help stick his jokes. "Gentlemen Broncos" is better with stiff-banged eccentricity, deploying a fulfilling use of soundtrack cuts, clueless VHS filmmaking ambition, sci-fi fanboy parody, and buffoonish bravado, forming a deeply flawed but appealing valentine to a literary subculture.