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Much in the way a blind pig occasionally sniffs out an acorn, Gentlemen Broncos-- ostensibly a comedy-- has its own smatterings of laughs. Pretty much everything done by Jemaine Clement or Sam Rockwell in their roles is funny, as is the occasional one-liner from a side character who doesn't grow irritating by virtue of only sticking around for one scene. But in a movie that's awkward, poorly structured and downright painful at times, those laughs are small rewards. Director Jared Hess and his screenwriting partner (and wife) Jerusha Hess are returning to the same arid Utah milieu that defined their breakout hit Napoleon Dynamite, but it's clear they've already used all the good stuff they had.
It's a shame, too, because the basic story is promising before it gets bogged down by all the extraneous plots and characters. Benjamin (Michael Angarano), the only remotely realistic character in the film, is a 15-year-old living with a single mom (Jennifer Coolidge) who has the chance to meet his idol, sci-fi writer and egomaniac Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), at a weekend writing seminar, called Cletus Fest for no knowable reason. Chevalier gets his hands on Benjamin's opus, the sci-fi western Yeast Lords, and faced with writer's block he rips it off wholesale. In the meantime Benjamin has signed over the film rights to a pair of local teen filmmakers (Halley Feiffer and Hector Jimenez), who make a movie with production values that make Jack Black's efforts in Be Kind Rewind look like a Michael Bay movie.
There are many, many versions of Yeast Lords populating the film, including both Benjamin's and Chevalier's fantasy versions (both of them starring the hilarious and versatile Rockwell) and the low-fi one that's being butchered before Benjamin's eyes. On top of all that, there's also a story involving Benjamin's mom's efforts to sell modest nightgowns and homemade popcorn balls, and Mike White pops up in a getup described as "an albino Ric Flair." Then there's a shootout with a character we never see again, a film shoot for a movie having nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and a ton of other cinematic non-sequiturs that distract from what should have been the central plot-- the conflict between Benjamin and Chevalier.
These digressions all worked fine in Napoleon Dynamite, both because they involved a central high school and group of people, and because each of the oddballs in the film emerged as real characters as well. But most of the people in Gentlemen Broncos are nothing more than a series of schticks, with Coolidge doing her gentle airhead thing, White doing his bug-eyed weirdo thing, and Jimenez affecting this fish-mouthed priss character whose every move-- from befriending Feiffer's character to starring as the female lead in the Yeast Lords movie-- makes no sense. Even Feiffer, who starts off doing a clever take on the spoiled rich girl diva, sees her character head in bizarre directions until it diminishes entirely. Only Clement, by virtue of having minimal screentime, and Angarano, by virtue of having no personality, manage to keep their characters intact from start to finish.
From the moment that Chevalier lays eyes on Benjamin's manuscript, we're left waiting for the moment when the two will finally meet again, but instead there's over an hour of goofy filmmaking, sight gags and pulling faces to endure before getting back to the real story. The fantasy sci-fi sequences, in which Rockwell is alternately a grizzled space cowboy (Benjamin's version) or a glitzy swish (Chevalier's version), are entertaining entirely because of his performances, but it stretches believability that both Benjamin and Chevalier, in their wildest fantasies of what their stories might look like, imagine such a low-budget brand of sci-fi. Everything about the movie is trapped in the same dingy, 70s-esque style, when this would really have been a chance for Hess to stretch the Napoleon Dynamite visuals into something that felt remotely fresh.
There's probably a way to pick out all the individual gems of Gentlemen Broncos, like the well-tuned performances and occasional good gag, and reshape something worthwhile out of it. But clearly the Hesses could not be bothered to separate the wheat from the chaff, presenting a movie that's a jumble of ideas and pastiches, none of them paying off.