I have long been a huge fan of what Jared Hess accomplished with Napolean Dynamite. It’s a Mormon film, I think, without overtly advertising itself as such; I see its Mormon-ness in the small details: the Ricks College tee shirt Napolean wears, the farmer in an early scene shown later presiding over Kip and Lafawnduh’s wedding. A few months after it opened, I went to a regional festival of the American College Theatre Festival, where I directed a short, student-written play. My cast were all from small, rural California schools. They’d all seen ND many times, and loved to quote favorite lines. They knew the characters–they loved people like Pedro and Deb and Uncle Rico, because they knew people just like them. The casual violence of high school, which Hess treats so insistently and yet so off-handedly, was part of these students’ lives. And, of course, the through dead-pan stylization Hess employs, they saw a film that was funny precisely because it was so truthful.
Hess’s second film, Nacho Libre, was less successful. Jack Black’s manic antics were a poor match for Hess’s style, and although it had funny moments, the stylistic distancing proved anesthetizing. Plus, though I know Mexican professional wrestling is as preposterous as Hess depicts it, it’s not a world I know. It didn’t resonate with me.
I managed to avoid Gentleman Broncos, Hess’s 2009 feature, until this week. For one thing, it got brutal notices on Rotten Tomatoes. The first three reviews on that website are excerpted as follows: “At one level, it is pretty bad. Then, on the other level, it is downright horrible” (Randy Cordova); “Don’t pay money to see it, don’t waste your time if it comes on cable; you might not even want to bother reading the rest of this review” (Tom Long); “Tedious and unfocused” (Colin Covert). Ouch.
But I love Hess. At least I loved his first film. So I finally put it on my Netflix queue (LOVE Netflix), and on Tuesday, it showed up.
Now, let me say this: if you didn’t like Napolean Dynamite, if you didn’t get it, if you thought the acting was bad and the filmmaking approach primitive and the film irritatingly campy, DO NOT rent and watch Gentlemen Broncos. It’s not the film for you.
It is, however, the film for me. It’s a much much much stranger film than ND. It’s perhaps one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It’s got flying harpies who wear breast cannons, enabling them to use their breasts to shoot at things. It’s got Jennifer Coolidge doing a fashion show of incredibly tacky and ugly lingerie. It’s got Sam Rockwell on a pilgrimage to find his lost gonads. It’s crazy. I was entranced by it. I thought it was daring and brave and warped, and I laughed aloud, a lot. That may say more about me than it does about the film.
Okay, so the premise: Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a teenage fantasy writer wanna-be, who lives alone with–and is home-schooled by his widowed mother (Coolidge), who ekes out a living designing (preposterous) lingerie; Benjamin has a part-time job at her store. He goes to a teen writers’ camp, where he meets fellow teen writer wannabes Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez). Tabatha seems to like him–at least, she lets him rub lotion all over her hands (it makes the most obscene squishing sound), but that’s all. Lonnie is a budding filmmaker–what he seems mostly to make are trailers for films he wants to make. Tabatha offers to read Benjamin’s manuscript, which is then enacted for us–it involves Bronco (Rockwell) in a futurist dystopia in which his testes have been removed by scientists, and his quest to get them back, which involves what seem to be flying, cannon-bearing deer, and a frontal attack on a yeast mine.
At the camp, the featured speaker is Benjamin’s personal hero, Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), a fantasy writer who also designs his own cover art; also a pretentious twit with a plummy faux-English accent, who later teaches a workshop on how you can spice up any fantasy character names by adding ‘anous’ to the end of a normal name. Chevalier, as it happens, is close to being dumped by his publisher, as his last several submissions have been rubbish. In desperation, he steals Benjamin’s manuscript, with some tweaks (the rough-and-tumble Bronco, for example, becomes an effeminate blonde). Meanwhile, Lonnie, prodded by Tabatha, has decided to film Benjamin’s story–or at least make a trailer out of it–starring Tabatha, and also Rod Decker (a local Utah newscaster), and Dusty (Mike White), who enters Ben’s life by volunteering to be a Big Brother, but who sticks around because he’s got a thing for Benjamin’s Mom.
And so we end up seeing, on screen, three versions of Benjamin’s novel–the real version with Rockwell as Bronco, Lonnie’s film version, starring Dusty and Tabatha (and Benjamin), and Chevalier’s new published version.
Of course, eventually, Benjamin learns of his idol’s treachery, and confronts him at a book signing, which ends badly. As for the ending, nothing really works out all that well, except for Bronco, who beats up Chavalier’s fake version of himself, which is clearly symbolic of something. I have to confess, I don’t totally get it, except that it’s sort of sweet and lovely, and we finally get to see Jennifer Coolidge wearing the lingerie she’s designed–a comic highlight all its own.
It’s an incredibly strange film. I want to say it’s not as human as ND, but it actually sort of is, in Benjamin’s sweet and sort of redemptive relationship with his mother. What I can say is that it’s completely unique, completely unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. Jared Hess is an original. The film seems almost infantile, at times. But I’m warped enough in my sense of humor to find it incredibly funny. Kudos to the most original voice in contemporary film-making.