Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural Infamy: With Napoleon Dynamite, the husband-and-wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess lived out every independent filmmaker’s dream. While still in their early twenties, the Mormon couple scraped together enough money to make a tiny, low-budget, perversely wholesome quirkfest that captured the public imagination and became a pop-culture phenomenon. Napoleon’s follow-up, 2006’s Nacho Libre, wasn’t as successful, critically or commercially, but it nevertheless inspired a small but fervent cult.
Napoleon Dynamite divided critics and audiences but just about everyone agreed that the Hess’ third film, 2009’s Gentlemen Broncos, was an embarrassment. The reviews were so vitriolic and the box-office so bad that the film’s wide release was cancelled, leaving Broncos to limp its way to a gross of just over $100,000 domestically. It scored a disastrous 28 on Metacritic and a Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating of 19 percent. Most critics agreed with Roger Ebert, who called it “a film I don't even begin to get,” or our own Sean O’Neal, who wrote, “much like thrift-store scavenging, Gentlemen Broncos yields scant few returns to make digging through all that mysteriously stained ugliness worthwhile.” Gentlemen Broncos became a cult film without a cult, an odd little nothing abandoned and unloved even by people who memorized Napoleon Dynamite. Could it possibly be as bad as its reputation suggests?
Curiosity Factor: Gentlemen Broncos’ cast and premise radiate promise. There’s a great film to be made starring Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as a pompous science-fiction writer who steals the work of young fan Michael Angarano and passes it off as his own, especially given a supporting cast stocked with ringers like Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Josh Pais, and Sam Rockwell. This isn’t it.
The Viewing Experience: Gentlemen Broncos at least gets off to a fantastic start, with an opening-credit sequence where the names of the film’s cast and crew appear on the kind of evocative, fascinating paperback covers that pop up in Keith Phipps’ Box Of Paperbacks Book Club, accompanied by a gloriously cheesy song about the distant future. In its first three minutes, the film’s affection for the cheesiest depths of science fiction is palpable and infectious. In retrospect, this opening is like the bait-and-switch cover of a cheap ’60s sci-fi paperback: It promises an exciting world of adventure and intrigue, then delivers a bunch of inane, puerile nonsense.
Pity the actors in a Jared Hess film. They’re dressed in the least-flattering wardrobe imaginable, given hairstyles that would have drawn derisive laughter even in the bad-hair decade that was the ’80s, and asked to deliver stumbling, awkward lines in affectless monotones. Gentlemen Broncos doesn’t have a cast: It has victims, none of whom deserve this professional punishment.
The normally winning Angarano, who managed to be charming even in a movie where he played a terminally ill teen whose final wish is to bang a supermodel (One Last Thing) is a passive blank as the film’s hapless hero, a home-schooled misfit who’s a science fiction-writing prodigy minus the talent.
Angarano’s endlessly supportive mother (Jennifer Coolidge) sends him to a two-day young writers’ camp where he meets ambitious upstart Halley Feiffer and her creepy best friend Héctor Jiménez, a mincing, effeminate amateur filmmaker whose mouth is perpetually fixed in a creepy, Nike swoosh-shaped smile designed to show off all of his teeth. Why? Apparently because the Hesses thought it was funny. That’s the only possible explanation for any of the film’s random, self-satisfied quirkiness—and Gentlemen Broncos is all random, self-satisfied quirkiness. They also thought it would be funny to have him do this for no discernible reason.
At the writers’ retreat, Angarano shows Feiffer his latest science-fiction novella. As this scene illustrates, Angarano’s nonsensical words are “dramatized” in sequences with Sam Rockwell as the hero of Angarano’s convoluted fantasy world. Gentlemen Broncos consequently suffers from quadruple-amateurism. It’s an amateurish film about an amateurish writer whose work is dramatized in an amateurish fashion twice: first in the sequences with Rockwell and later in a go-nowhere subplot in which Jiménez films an adaptation of Angarano’s novella starring Mike White, a feather-haired burnout who is partnered with Angarano as part of the most misguided Big Brother program this side of Role Models. In this clip, White and his charge get acquainted when White’s pet snake takes a massive crap on him.
At the writing camp, Angarano has an opportunity to meet and question his favorite author, a boorish hack who Clement plays as a supercilious boob in the passionate throes of a decades-long love affair with his own voice. There’s a lot of comedy and pathos endemic in the idea of an idealistic young artist becoming disillusioned with his hero, especially if the hero in question betrays and steals from him. But Gentlemen Broncos cycles through Angarano’s disillusionment so quickly it has no impact. He meets Clement, realizes almost instantly that he’s an asshole, and no longer nurtures any lofty illusions about his former role model.
Clement, not surprisingly, is the film’s sole redeeming facet. In the film’s only funny scene, he “teaches” a group of impressionable young writers that any character’s name can be rendered “magical” or at the very least insufferably pretentious, by affixing a “onius,” “anous,” or “ainous” to its end. In this scene, Clement makes what he imagines is a grand statement about the ultimate essence of writing that is met with silence.
In a fit of desperation, Clement passes off Angarano’s terrible novella as his own and watches it fly up the bestseller list, only to be climactically confronted about his theft at a book signing. Gentlemen Broncos feels less like a film than a moribund museum of kitsch. The filmmaking is inert, hermetic, and ultimately exhausting, an airless cavalcade of eccentricities devoid of momentum, pacing, or shape. The filmmakers quickly lose interest in their promising central premise and give the film over to awful subplots like Coolidge’s attempt to launch a nightgown line or the making of Jiménez’s terrible film. When all else fails, they pile on the shit and vomit jokes, as in this clip, where this thing happens.
It’s entirely possible that the Hesses love their characters, but the film’s groaning encyclopedia of bad taste, cheapness, camp artifacts, and cheesy songs reeks of smug condescension. Nobody emerges unscathed, especially Jiménez, who was encouraged to camp it up as a deeply unpleasant, mildly offensive caricature of a teenaged queen in touch with his inner Ed Wood.
That opening, however, is killer, and the premise begs to be recycled. Maybe some enterprising soul should follow Clement’s lead and rip off the film’s opening-credit sequence and central plot and use them in a film that doesn’t feel like a grueling endurance test.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? 15 percent. Clement is terrific and the Hesses will surprise you with a clever line every 25 minutes or so, but for the most part Gentlemen Broncos exactly as bad as it looks.