At the end of Fanboys, when the boys and token girl finally settle in to watch The Phantom Menace, one turns to the group and asks "Guys, what if the movie sucks?" It's a question that also should have occurred to the assorted geeks and fans who fought so hard for this movie's release, starting anti-Harvey Weinstein websites and insisting that the movie's darker subplot be kept intact, according to the wishes of director Kyle Newman.
Not that Fanboys is an Episode One-level disappointment, but it's just generic and uneven, more like a typical raunch comedy than a paean to geek subculture. The sloppy script by Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg veers between pop culture references, poop and fart jokes and goopy sentimentality, treating character development like an inconvenience and slapping the plot together rather than give it any real structure. Newman and his lead actors establish a genuine rapport among the endearing main characters, but they're pretty much lost in the weeds in a script that can't honor its great premise.
The four main characters are introduced clumsily as former high school buddies now separated, with Eric (Sam Huntington) having moved on to manage his dad's car dealership and the other three struggling to adapt to the real world. Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in his mom's garage, which he insists upon calling a carriage house, and works at comic book store with Windows (Jay Baruchel) and Linus (Chris Marquette), where all three secretly crush on geek hottie Zoe (Kristen Bell). For some reason Eric decides it's time to reunite with the gang, and it's even less clear why they all vow to cash in on their childhood dream of driving to Skywalker Ranch and stealing a copy of The Phantom Menace-- it's 1998, you see, and they're convinced the new Star Wars movie is worth the trouble.
Ostensibly Eric decides to make the trip because Linus is dying of cancer, a fact that's tossed into the end of a few scenes but otherwise ignored for the bulk of the movie. The cancer subplot was one that fans fought hard to keep here, and I hate to say it, but Harvey Weinstein was right: The movie would have been better without it. Fanboys plods along agreeably enough once the road trip gets going, but every time the script dips grudgingly back into the "Linus is dying!" subplot, the momentum falls apart. Otherwise interchangeable with the rest of his buddies, Linus sure doesn't act like a cancer patient who is at one point diagnosed by doctor Carrie Fisher as "very sick." And plus, with the benefit of hindsight, we know it's pretty lame to subject your dying buddy to The Phantom Menace anyway.
Like most road trip movies, there are segments of Fanboys that work better than others. Hutch diverts the van to go to Captain Kirk's Iowa hometown and harass some rabid Trekkies, and once Zoe pops up halfway through the trip to join the boys, Kristen Bell's natural spunk helps a lot. Seth Rogen does triple duty as a bucktoothed Trekkie, a Trek conventioneer dressed as a monster, and most hilariously, a Las Vegas pimp; he manages not to steal the show from the lesser-known characters and, as a change of pace, pulls off characters rather than thinly veiled versions of himself. And the final arrival at Skywalker Ranch, complete with all-black ninja outfits, grappling hooks and Star Wars props galore, is a fitting finale for the movie's silly and warm-hearted tone.
But other parts, like a high-speed chase and some drug-addled soul-searching in the desert, may as well have been part of any other road trip movie. Cameos from Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, WIlliam Shatner and more give some geek cred, and the main cast seems genuinely connected to their thinly-drawn characters, but the screenplay isn't up to the challenge. Star Wars fandom has been celebrated in pop culture for decades, but we're still waiting for a movie that captures it with any real level of truth.