Each visit to Jared Hess’s world of yard-sale kitsch, best represented in his quirky indie comedy debut Napoleon Dynamite, is a little more draining than the last. Hess started to overstay his welcome with his moderately less successful Nacho Libre, which many all-too-eagerly accused of racism for its politely grotesque depiction of Mexican masked wrestling. Gentlemen Broncos, Hess’s new film, is similarly a product of rapidly diminishing returns. Without the innovation of Hess’s first film or the boundless energy of a lead performer like Nacho star Jack Black to prop itself up, Gentlemen Broncos feels like a well-paced but only fitfully funny retread of Hess’ earlier material. Introverted people are strange and funny. Oh.
As in Hess’s last two features, the hero of Gentlemen Broncos is creatively repressed but eventually finds comfort in the fact that no matter how dorky his mode of expression makes him look, eventually he can make good by letting his freak flag fly. Benjamin (Michael Angarano) writes science fiction stories, his latest one being about Bronco (Sam Rockwell), a space adventurer, based on his dead father, who fights yeast-producing Cyclopes with the help of his big-breasted step-sister/love interest, his lynx and a bunch of flying deer with weapons in odd places. Thanks to his deranged, Jesus-loving, nightie-designing, popcorn-selling mama Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), Ben is able to attend a weekend-long writer’s workshop presided by pompous fantasy author Ronald Chevalier (the under-utilized Jermaine Clement). Both Chevalier and Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) break Ben’s heart, by taking his story and, respectively, plagiarizing it and making a hokey, no-budget film adaptation of it. Which is funny, because it seemed hokey enough in the first place.
You gotta feel for somebody who’s dumped on as vigorously as Ben is here, but that doesn’t mean that his plight is necessarily funny in a rewarding way. Hess’s fixation with the strident behavior of clueless yokels, whose quirks are all somewhat libidinal in nature—a joke about popcorn balls, two-in-a-sack, is one of the film’s biggest clunkers—still elicits frequent, unclean yuks but here it just feels a bit more tired and a lot more formulaic.
Even the ultra-campy excursions into the different versions of Ben’s story get tedious after a short while, funny as seeing Sam Rockwell as a flamboyant tranny bouncing around on wires may be. The fact that Hess doesn’t go far enough in his parody of science fiction nerdery is probably the biggest disappointment of all, though the fact that he squanders a very funny performance from Clement is pretty high up there, too. The film’s opening title sequence promises a personal parody of the hermetically sealed world of fantastic old pulp novels, featuring a parade of wacky cover art based on novels like The Incredible Shrinking Man and A Princess of Mars. Instead, Hess just takes a passing swipe at that self-involved world, ever-ready as it is for more parodying, making the film a disappointing missed opportunity.
Opens October 30