Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 25, 2010)
After the success of Napoleon Dynamite, director Jared Hess got a shot at bigger-budget filmmaking with Nacho Libre. That film failed to find much of an audience, and Hess’s third effort – 2009’s Gentlemen Broncos - fared even worse. It got a limited theatrical release and crept onto home video with very little fanfare.
Though I didn’t care for his first two flicks, I thought I’d give Broncos a shot before I totally gave up on Hess as a filmmaker. Nerdy teen Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) aspires to write sci-fi novels, and he comes up with a short story called Yeast Lords. Benjamin goes to a short writer’s camp for home-school kids.
There he gets to see a speech from his idol, novelist Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) – and more. Chevalier announces a contest in which the winning writer will receive a 1000-copy distribution printing of the work with cover art created by the revered author himself. Desperate for a new idea, Chevalier comes across Benjamin’s story and steals it.
In the meantime, Benjamin gets to know Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), a fellow writer he meets at the convention. She works with Lonnie (Hector Jimenez), an aspiring filmmaker who wants to adapt Yeast Lords into a flick. Benjamin has to deal with these various threats to his artistic aspirations.
That’s it – I’m officially done with Jared Hess. I gave his three shots to deliver a good – or even mediocre movie – and each time he created something that only met varying levels of awfulness. I guess I should give Hess credit for consistency: he makes thoroughly awful, unfunny films.
And ones that try to stretch the most minimal comedic ideas to feature length. When I reviewed Nacho and Napoleon, I noted that both came across as 10-minute comedy skits extended to 90 minutes or so. This problem also befalls the slow, tedious Broncos, though I’m not sure it even boasts a mildly interesting sketch idea.
All three Hess films revolve around one main character, but unlike Napoleon and Nacho, Benjamin is incredibly passive. Until the movie’s end, he does almost nothing as events swirl around him. Actually, “swirl” is an awful term to use since very little happens in the story. The plot is sketchy at best, and mostly the characters just engage in various comedic attempts.
“Swirl” may’ve been the wrong choice, but “comedic attempts” is perfect – and “comedic failures” is even better. For the most part, Hess attempts to wring laughs out of Broncos via three methods: gags about bodily functions, hairstyles and fashions. In terms of the first one, this is a film that features a huge snake with diarrhea. If you find that idea funny, have a blast – I think the reality is even less amusing than the concept.
As for the hair and clothes jokes, those echo the outdated design found in Napoleon. For reasons that never come across, most of the characters in Broncos sport fashions popularized in the 1980s. The movie clearly takes place in present day, as we hear references to the Internet and see some more modern technology. Nonetheless, we see many 80s related outfits/haircuts. We even view characters as they speak on large, clunky cordless phones.
Perhaps this is Hess’s attempt to spoof the lack of style found in his native Utah, the setting for Broncos and Napoleon. Or maybe it’s just his stab at stupid, anachronistic laughs. I’d bet on the latter. Hess never met a cheap, pointless joke he didn’t like.
He also can’t figure out to write or tell a story. Granted, I’m not sure he’s ever attempted an actual narrative, though I think he tried a bit harder in his earlier flicks. Here he doesn’t even bother to pretend that there’s an actual plot. The film just minces through vaguely connected comedic ideas without a care in the world.
On the surface, Broncos looks more in tune with the low-key quirks of Napoleon, and in many ways it is. However, I think the emphasis on cheap genital and excrement jokes shows that Hess “learned” something from his experience on Nacho. It’s like Broncos offers the worst of both worlds.
Broncos manages to waste some talented actors. Jennifer Coolidge shows up as Benjamin’s mom and throws out possibly the worst performance of her career. Sam Rockwell – probably present here due to some form of blackmail – plays Bronco in the scenes that act out the novels. He’s not awful, but he can’t do anything with the atrocious material. Sure, the Yeast story is supposed to be bad, but Hess can’t mine any mocking laughs with the footage, and the same is true for Lonnie’s version of the tale; all make fun of lame movies/novels but they generate no humor.
If forced to pick a saving grace, I’d go with Clement’s pompous performance as Chevalier. He never tries to make the role a real person, and that works, as he captures the author’s smug pretensions. He can’t rescue the movie – heck, he can’t even produce a chuckle due to the relentlessly idiotic source material – but his turn stands out as the sole borderline engaging part of the film. (It may qualify as ironic that Clement starred in Eagle Vs. Shark, a relentlessly atrocious flick in the Napoleon vein; that one was so awful it almost made me recant my criticism of Hess’s breakout film.)
At 89 minutes, Broncos overstays its welcome by a good 80 minutes. I’m not sure how such a brief film can seem so long, but this stinker drags and bores all the way. Slow, stupid and unfunny, the movie offers nothing of worth.
If you make it to the finish of the film, you may want to stick around through the end credits, as you’ll find a little “Bronco” coda.