Last night I spent an hour in my in-laws office (where I’ll be sleeping for the next week) attempting to come up with some introductory piece to our coverage of Austin’s Fantastic Fest. The thing is, even now I have no idea what to expect. It’s Austin, it’s the Alamo Drafthouse, and literally anything can happen when you’re in one of the best places on Earth to sit back and watch a flick. So enough with the introduction, here’s the kickoff to our Fantastic Fest 2009 coverage, my report straight from the Paramount Theater screening of Gentlemen Broncos (special thanks to the awesome folks at Fox Searchlight for slipping me into the screening despite epic first night festival confusion).

If like me, you’re a nerd for old sci-fi pulp paperbacks, then the opening credits of Gentlemen Bronco may be the coolest thing you’ll see all year. Once upon a time science fiction was as well known for its fantastical cover art as the words inside the books, and the film’s credits are displayed as a series of aging, well-read sci-fi paperback covers, including a hilarious photoshopping of Sam Rockwell. That sequence suggests this is a film which honors those old science fiction authors, which embraces and loves them while at the same time poking fun at them. It’s nothing of the sort. Instead, in much the same way that Napoleon Dynamite actually seemed to disdain its protagonist, Gentlemen Broncos seems to be standing back and laughing at the nerds who write this stuff. Jared Hess is, once again, the bully pulling down some hapless idiot’s shorts and then congratulating himself for how clever he is in doing it.

The thing is, I’m not sure that’s what he intended. In the Q&A which followed the Fantastic Fest screening of his new movie, Hess confessed that as a kid he dreamed of becoming a special effects artist and that he’d always had this interest in making science fiction movies. Gentlemen Broncos was intended as his answer to that secret need, unfortunately he’s not actually very good at special effects or for that matter science fiction, so instead he seems to have (unintentionally perhaps) settled for mocking people who are.

If Gentlemen Broncos has any sympathy for any of its characters, its 15-year-old Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a burgeoning sci-fi author with a miserable life. He’s sallow and pale, permanently sad and terminally out of sync with everyone around him. The others who populate his world lack any sense of self-awareness while he seems aware of everything and, understandably, miserable about it. Around him are a variety of distant, emotionally dead caricatures who say ridiculous things no person would say and behave in an exaggerated way which suggests they believe no one around them can actually see what they’re doing.

Benjamin has written a sci-fi novel called “Yeast Lords” and while at a writers camp he hands it over to famous science fiction author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) as part of a writing contest. Benjamin goes home and Chevalier, who has struggled to come up with more material for a new novel, reads his book. It’s obviously terrible but for the purposes of this film we, and apparently everyone in it, are required to believe it’s a work of genius. Any time someone reads Benjamin’s hand-written notebook, the film flips into a wild recreation of what we’re seeing, as a means of showcasing intentionally awful special effects and an outlandishly hairy Sam Rockwell as the book’s protagonist Bronco.

Sam Rockwell’s recreations are the closest Gentlemen Broncos gets to having any fun. Sure Clement’s Chevalier character is well done, but he’s underutilized. Chevalier is never allowed to interact with anyone, instead he spends most of the movie alone on screen, making bizarre speeches to the camera. It’s the film’s fantasy sequences which are the most interesting, featuring Rockwell sewing on his own testicles, fighting laser wielding cyclops armies, and riding rocket powered Battle Stags. That might have been good enough if say, the book recreations had served as some sort of allegory for what’s going on in the movie’s primary story. But there seems to be no connection, other than that Hess likes putting Sam Rockwell in a variety of ridiculous wigs. I don’t blame him, it is a lot of fun, but there was an opportunity to do more here than simply make people look ridiculous so we can laugh at them. None of it makes any sense and it’s good only on that so awful it’s genius level which is, presumably, what Hess intended.

But it’s still awful, and Benjamin’s book is awful, the special effects used to create it are awful, all of Ronald Chevalier’s work is awful, and for that matter most of the people in the movie are in one way or another, awful. Whether Hess has made these things awful on purpose or not, seems somewhat irrelevant. They’re still awful. Benjamin is a sane man trapped in a world of awful lunatics and though on the outside he seems as though he doesn’t below, his horrible writing suggests that in fact he does. Why feel sorry for him?

Still the film is full of delightfully strange little details. Chevalier for instance always wears a Bluetooth device which he never uses. Mike White appears in the film as a “guardian angel” and carries around a yellow snake for no particular reason. Some of the movie’s musical cues are inspired, in particular the rampant overuse of the 1969 Zager and Evans hit “In the Year 2525” which, much like everything in the movie, is so bad it’s good. Rocket powered, flying reindeer are so ridiculous they’re inspired and Sam Rockwell, as you’d expect, makes the most of his insane sci-fi setting.

Yet I need more than nonsensical props and musical asides. There’s a moment in Gentlemen Broncos when a character is pushed so far that he punches another man in the face. It’s the most shocking punch seen on screen all year, not because of the way it was filmed or the violence of its execution. It’s not even really a surprise, you’ll see it coming miles away. But aside from that punch, very few in Jared Hess’s movie ever seem real enough to have actual emotions. Standing on stage after the Fantastic Fest screening of his film, arm around his effervescent and charming wife, Hess seemed every bit as warm and inviting as his movie as not. As he did in Napoleon Dynamite, Jared keeps both his characters and his audience at arm’s length. There’s never any connection between his actors, never any feeling that he understands or sympathizes with these characters, so why should we?

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