The opening credits of Gentlemen Broncos is cute and promising, presenting cast and crew names on the covers of retro pulp fiction book covers. This sets up the premise of Jared Hess’ new film, which is, like Napoleon Dynamite, filled with nerds, this time of the sci-fi variety. Unfortunately, what follows doesn’t quite live up to his clever opening.
Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is an aspiring science fiction writer homeschooled by his seriously offbeat mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge). She sends him off to Cletus Fest, a writer’s camp, headlined by his favorite fantasy novelist Ronald Chevalier (Jermaine Clement, who predictably steals the show). Though he’s eager to learn from his hero, Benji sees through Chevalier’s self-aggrandizing non-answers and posturing. When the prototypically awkward Benji shares his masterpiece, Yeast Lords (featuring a character named Bronco), with fellow campers, then enters it into the Cletus Fest writing contest, it ends up first bastardized by a local filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jimenez) and finally outright plagiarized by Chevalier, who, it turns out, is in dire need of a hit.
What follows is less a story about Benji fighting back (though it is that too) and more about his slow recognition of his victimization. Angarano’s subtlety helps some, as Benji nurtures his mother and misses his dead father. Surrounded by cartoony weirdness—from Bluetoothed poser Chevalier to Judith in her Bedazzled denim jumper to python-draped Dusty (Mike White, who has never looked creepier)—Benji focuses on preserving his faith in one surrogate father figure (Bronco) and punishing the other (Chevalier), without recognizing what’s at stake, in this case, his own perpetual adolescence.
This plot is broken up by the three different versions of Yeast Lords. Like the film’s opening credits, it’s a potentially cute trick, deriving most of its laughs from low budget effects and an over-the-top hero (Sam Rockwell plays Bronco). The line between mockery and homage here is immediately blurry and it eventually wears thin. The comparisons do reveal to us, however, that Benji’s story sucks only slightly less than Lonnie’s and Chevalier’s interpretations.
Even as Gentlemen Broncos makes sport of hacks like Lonnie, Chevalier, and clothing designer Judith, it also delights in their creative process. We are never offered a similar insight into Benji, which is odd, since he is ostensibly the only “real” artist of the lot. So, while we cringe at Lonnie’s horrible directing, it’s sort of touching how pleased he is with himself. Likewise, you can’t help but feel happy for Judith while laughing at her explanation of how to make dress out of a beach towel and burlap fringe. You don’t feel that anyone is outright loathsome or even wholly mocked. In some ways, this is refreshing: a bunch of homeschoolers is too easy a target, but Hess and company, surprisingly, don’t take many shots beyond the benign ones (see: denim jumper).
The problem with this kind and gentle approach is that Benji’s victory lacks oomph, wronged as he is by such toothless villains. His responses to his many emasculations are mostly unheroic (silence, fleeing the room teary-eyed or puking), a stark contrast to the ultra-toughness of Bronco (who responds to the loss of a testicle by sewing it back on himself—one of the film’s many gross-out moments). When Benji does inevitably explode with violence and try to reclaim what’s his, it comes as a relief, but doesn’t lead to vindication.