As any fashion magazine can tell you, the trick to retro kitsch is moderation. And for director Jared Hess, whose zeal for Goodwill grotesquerie knows no bounds, the contrast between his cultishly adored Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos is the difference between wearing a perfectly faded concert T-shirt, and draping yourself in double-knit polyester. Every frame of Hess’ new film—the wood-paneled walls coated with winking unicorn posters, its characters’ high-waisted-jean-shorts-and-turtlenecks ensembles, the gaunt-faced extras straight out of R. Crumb—is crammed with so much deliberate tackiness that it borders on exhausting self-parody. And much like thrift-store scavenging, Gentlemen Broncos yields scant few returns to make digging through all that mysteriously stained ugliness worthwhile.
Whereas Napoleon rooted for its socially retarded protagonist, Broncos just pities its underdog, a round-shouldered doormat (Michael Angarano), who idles away the hours in the geodesic home he shares with his widowed mother (a gamely bedraggled Jennifer Coolidge) crafting sci-fi tales about a yeast-loving redneck space warrior named Bronco. At a fantasy writers’ camp, Angarano meets a pushily flirtatious girl (Halley Feiffer) and her best friend, an amateur filmmaker (Héctor Jiménez) whose mouth is frozen in a toothy rictus every bit as strained as the efforts to make his character loveable. They encourage Angarano to submit his story to a contest judged by his hero, a washed-up author played by Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement; in a fit of deadline-driven desperation, Clement steals Angarano’s story, tweaking minor details and turning it into a bestseller. Meanwhile, Jiménez takes his own considerable license in adapting Angarano’s ravaged opus, and the film volleys between scenes from the competing versions—with Sam Rockwell clearly having a ball playing “Bronco” (and Clement’s swishily effete update, “Brutus”) while zipping around on rocket-powered reindeer—as Angarano slowly works up the courage to reclaim his creation.
The film hints at a Rushmore-esque showdown between Angarano and Clement that never really materializes. Instead, Clement spends his too-few scenes in regrettable isolation from the rest of the cast—and while he’s likeably odious as a pretentious gasbag, he isn’t enough to save a film that wrings its biggest laughs from diarrhea-afflicted snakes, hideous sweaters, and Mike White (as a burnout “guardian angel”) in a David Coverdale wig. Most damning of all—and in stark contrast to Napoleon—Broncos doesn’t have a single memorable line of dialogue. Its most lasting impression is its overbearing gaudiness, and that isn’t a look anyone should try pulling off.