In the first 20 minutes of Gentlemen Broncos we’re introduced to a self-obsessed sci-fi novelist with a fetish for native American fashion accessories, character names that end in “ous,” and girls with breasts that shoot lasers; a middle-aged woman who makes dresses with materials like beach towels and names like “reachable dreams”; and a super-low-budget film producer of indeterminate race and ambiguous sexuality who wears acid-washed jeans and whose mouth looks like it’s being continually twisted back with meat hooks. And then just when you think the film can’t accommodate any more weirdos, in walks a dude with ‘80s hair-metal hair and a snake wrapped around his neck.
But that’s the world of Jared Hess, the Napoleon Dynamite director who seems dedicated to fetishizing the offbeat at any cost. In the case of his latest film, that cost is particularly steep, as it includes humor, inventiveness, and a general sense of purpose. Hess (along with his wife and co-writer Jerusha) conceives of character as a piling on of as many offbeat qualities as a single figure will take, hoping that one of these quirks will achieve its comic purpose. But whereas that great creator of quirky supporting characters, Charles Dickens, wisely stuck each of his comic grotesques with a single distinctive gesture or phrase, Hess’s figures are so overloaded with bad ideas it’s difficult to tell what the joke is supposed to be. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s not very funny.
Amid this misguided gallery of supporting players, Broncos‘s lead, 17-year-old Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), is the comparatively normal center of Hess’s universe. He’s a homeschooled sci-fi geek, but unlike Napoleon Dynamite, he’s surrounded by weirdos far more weird than he is. An aspiring novelist, he heads off for a weekend writer’s conference where his hero, genre legend Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), is both the featured speaker and the judge of an amateur manuscript contest. Benjamin submits his own entry—some silliness called Yeast Lords, which features flying reindeer, pink projectile vomit, and a hero who reattaches one of his testicles by hand—only to have a writer-blocked Chevalier steal his story and turn it into his biggest success in years. And as if that writer’s act of plagiarism and general sliminess weren’t enough to clinch the deal, you know Chevalier’s no good because he turns Benjamin’s burly hero into a blond-haired effeminate whiner.
But apparently Yeast Lords is a hot property. Because while Cheavlier is stealing the manuscript, local filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jimenez) is busy turning the material into his latest no-budget movie. So as Broncos unfolds, Hess gives us three versions of the story. He intercuts footage that literalizes both Benjamin and Chevalier’s take on the material, pitting Sam Rockwell (as both writer’s protags) against a B-movie landscape of painted backdrops and lo-fi effects. Then he gives us the far cruder footage from Lonnie’s movie—amateur filmmaking at its most amateur. But just as the sight of misfits putting on an uncouth display of cinema can only yield so much comic mileage, so the more polished footage drawn from Benjamin’s story comes up similarly short on laughs. A comic aside is only as good as its inspiration and, for all its grotesqueries, Yeast Lords is considerably less clever than the film’s characters would have you believe.
As Benjamin becomes aware of Chevalier’s plagiarism and sets about putting things right, something begins to happen in the film. Hess’s commitment to weirdness—not much of a positive quality when unmatched by comic inventiveness, but endearing in a small measure nonetheless—begins to waver. Characters defined—however confusedly—by their quirks, begin to round into the roles of stock figures: the villain, the girlfriend, the supportive allies. And even as Hess continues to serve up offbeat, if unwelcome, little bits of business (Benjamin’s first kiss with his leading lady, for example, is streaked with vomit), the film attempts to trade look-at-these-freaks yuks for a more sentimental orientation in which the characters come together to help each other and exhibit a genuine affection for one another.
Broncos is clearly not this second, good-natured type of film and even such questionable early sequences as Hess’s setting up of a fat woman shopping for a dress as an object of laughter seem more in line with the movie’s sensibility than its vaguely feel-good final act. Especially since even as he plays at making nice, Hess still seems to see his characters as little more than objects of comedic fun. The only problem is they’re so dimly imagined that, in the end, there’s really not much to laugh at after all.