Does success limit an artists’ cultish accolades? It’s an interesting paradox which has loomed over American filmmaker Jared Hess’ head since his unashamedly kitsch debut Napoleon Dynamite. Although one of the most memorable American comedies of the last ten years, it claws at the coattails of counterculture viewers like a boisterous young bairn, desperate for your undivided attention and hipster appraise. After his lacklustre, Jack Black fronted second feature Nacho Libre, Hess’ 2009 effort Gentlemen Broncos is his most honest and enervated work, looking at the subject of outsider-ness through the boundless stylistic traits of fantasy and sci-fi.
At a truly exhaustive pace, Gentlemen Broncos tells the story of Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a greasy haired, feeble teenager with a penchant for writing pulpy sci-fi fiction. In a half-assed attempt to pursue his literary career, his introverted, nightgown-designing mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) sends Benjamin off to a sci-fi convention where he can enter into a writing contest judged by his hero Ronald Chevalier (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), a legendary author and illustrator of an epic fantasy series. Benjamin submits his newest work “Yeast Lords” for consideration but, seeing its saleable potential, Chevalier snatches up the story and passes it on to his demanding publishers as if his own creation. With a host of equally oddball cohorts (including the snake-adonning Mike White as his guardian angel Dusty), Benjamin fights to keep control of his creative work and boring life.
Inside this load-o-quirk, Hess stuffs three re-enactments of “Yeast Lords”: the one in writer Benjamin’s head, the one in Chevalier’s head, and the film-within-the-film made by Benjamin’s new ‘friends’. The one thing that ties them together is Sam Rockwell playing the three varieties of protagonist Bronco/Brutus. One minute a flamboyant tranny, then Mad Max hard man, Rockwell is clearly having fun in the needlessly daffy fantastical role; with Hess amping up the oddity of the so-called ‘real world’ of the film as if trying to balance out these warped fantasies. It’s a desperate game of one-upmanship which grows increasingly tiresome and light on the laughs.
Certainly able to craft decent moments of cinema (the notorious ‘vomit kiss’ is nothing short of sickening brilliance), Jared Hess is a director too focused on the here and now, rather than the film as whole, with the story and it’s overarching development seeming simultaneously rushed and infuriatingly slow.
It’s not all bad though. Gentlemen Broncos is saved from the ashes by Kiwi-comic Jemaine Clement. Stealing the show throughout, voicing Chevalier somewhere between the pompous oaf Tim Curry and smarmy charmer James Mason, all whilst embodying the idiosyncrasies of ostentatious authors to hilarious effect. With such a brilliant character performance, it’s disappointing that Clement is constrained to isolation, never being allowed enough time to interact with the other talented performers in the cast list.
So, we end back where we started, that slippery term ‘cult’. With his third film, Hess has tried to include everybody in on the joke whilst isolating them with a bag of nonsensical sci-fi comedy; inharmoniously combining worn fantasy jabs. But as the struggle toward something new and different overwhelms the film, it becomes less human, less funny, and more pointless. If you can link cultishness with limited success, then yes, Gentlemen Broncos is a cult movie. If not, this disappointed feature is just another lame attempt of a filmmaker trying too hard to be irreverent.