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Gentlemen Broncos DVD Review

Gentlemen Broncos movie poster Gentlemen Broncos

Theatrical Release: October 30, 2009 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jared Hess / Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess (screenplay)

Cast: Michael Angarano (Benjamin Purvis), Jennifer Coolidge (Judith Purvis), Jemaine Clement (Ronald Chevalier), Mike White (Dusty Crissop), Hector Jimenez (Lonnie Donaho), Halley Feiffer (Tabatha Jenkins), Josh Pais (Todd Keefe), Sam Rockwell (Bronco/Brutus), Edgar Oliver (Duncan/Lord Daysius), Clive Revill (Cletus), Suzanne May (Vanaya/Venonka), Johnny Hoops (Kanaya/Kenonka), John Baker (Don Carlos), Rod Decker (Rod Decker), Daniel "Doc" Love (Camera Operator)

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From the looks of things, it's becoming easy to label the filmmaking team of Jared and Jerusha Hess a one-hit wonder. The husband and wife found success when Napoleon Dynamite, the $400,000 homegrown comedy they wrote together and Jared directed,
became embraced as quickly and widely as any independent film in history. The couple's second movie, 2006's Nacho Libre (co-written by The School of Rock's Mike White), wasn't terrible but few would call it any good. I'm still amused recalling that that Jack Black film was preceded by a slew of tie-in merchandise, as if Napoleon's unheard-of retail boom would be duplicated.

There's a good chance you haven't even heard of the Hesses' third feature. Gentlemen Broncos opened in two theaters last fall, with the expectation that it would expand with help from word of mouth. The film never got any wider than 18 screens, though, essentially being pulled in the face of icy reviews and uninspired business. That was a pretty drastic and disconcerting move by Fox, who had spent a reported $10 million to make the film and had earned just $113 thousand from the few measly showings. With the general public unaware of this flatline performance, Broncos recently came to DVD and Blu-ray ready to potentially find a cult following.

Teen protagonist Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) has written many a fantasy story, but he still has to work selling his mother's dresses. Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) and her son have different reactions to a local TV report on a movie adaptation of his story.

Broncos tells the story of another largely friendless youth in a sparsely-populated western state. Home-schooled Utahan Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is an aspiring fantasy writer. Encouraged by his mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and somehow inspired by the father who died during his childhood, Benjamin writes stories involving distant planets, strange races, and detailed devices. When the film opens, he is excited to be attending a two-day writing camp. Sweetening the experience is a surprise appearance by Benjamin's idol Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, half of the New Zealand musical duo Flight of the Conchords, made internationally famous by the HBO comedy series of the same name), a popular author first published as a teenager. Chevalier offers some advice and announces he'll be judging a contest in which one submission will be chosen for limited publication.

Back home, taking a break from showing the dress designs she dreams of making and selling, Benjamin's mother reveals that she has signed him up for a "guardian angel" program through church. His assigned pal is the none too angelic Dusty (Mike White). Meanwhile, Benjamin also begins spending time with two people he met at camp, Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez). The somewhat supportive Tabatha reveals that "movie producer" Lonnie is ready to create a film version of Benjamin's imaginative story Yeast Lords. Benjamin agrees, finding himself part of one of the world's most amateurish productions ever captured on a bulky VHS camcorder.

Lonnie's odd outfit isn't the only one seeing potential in Yeast Lords. In need of something his publisher likes, Chevalier plagiarizes Benjamin's story (which was submitted to the convention competition), changing some names but leaving most ideas intact. Throughout the film, we get to see portions of the text come to life. They involve a long-haired warrior named Bronco (Sam Rockwell), a set of bald brother and sister allies, and an assortment of opposing forces.

Taking a break from some shirtless cover painting, Bluetooth-wearing author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) gets word that his publishers like his latest book (which he didn't actually write). As originally written (and visualized by Sam Rockwell), Benjamin's human hero Bronco is inspired by his late father.

If the business records paint the Hess team as a one-hit wonder, Broncos itself casts them as one-trick ponies. The film is every bit as interested as Napoleon Dynamite was in slowly depicting backward types. There is a critical difference, though. In Napoleon, the flavorful characters were generally content in their ways. Each longed for something (from a time machine to class presidency) and faced a fair amount of derision, but they pursued with conviction and through the amusingly awkward trials they underwent, viewers were mostly laughing with them.
The characters of Broncos are more like painfully unhappy zoo exhibitions we're invited to gawk at. There isn't a sympathetic individual in the mix and the one who deliberately comes closest (protagonist Benjamin) does so only by means of being a blank slate.

It's baffling how a subtle switch renders this effort so nasty and discomforting, but in moving from Napoleon's "us" mentality to Broncos' "them", every comedic target feels needlessly bullied and ridiculed. The film's sour flavor is strongest around Benjamin's mom, whose seamstress passions seem awfully harmless to treat as an irredeemable loser. Are juvenile filmmakers and fantasy writers also really deserving of such discouraging satire? Though few would recognize them, among the things that made Napoleon really stand out were its kind heart and subtle pathos; those who don't sing that comedy's praises are unable to see the protagonist as more than a buffoon (or they simply grew to loathe the hoopla it attracted). There is nothing like that here in Broncos and the film greatly suffers for it.

Broncos earns a PG-13 rating, the highest assigned to a Hess film. The couple's Mormon religious affiliation was widely cited in the discourse on Napoleon, their first work outside of the LDS cinema scene; many even reasonably assumed the film's mild manners contributed to its remarkable appeal. The profanity that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints frowns upon is largely absent again (although there is one conspicuous invocation of an s-word preceded by an "ape"). It's puzzling, though, what we do find here instead of foul language: a bevy of bathroom humor. Hardly a few minutes pass without a reference to or mention of breasts and gonads. Both feature prominently in the fiction of Benjamin and Chevalier. There's also a far greater volume of bodily functions than anyone should appreciate: projectile vomit flows in the visualizations of what Chevalier calls Brutus & Balzaak. Even the "real" world isn't immune to gross-out expulsion and excrement.

One notices that the Hesses have a lot more money at their disposal than they did on Dynamite. The sci-fi sequences boast elaborate sets, extensive make-up, and passable (but deliberately cheesy) visual effects. And a number of recognizable songs from the past get featured, including Scorpions' "Wind of Change", Cher's "Just Like Jesse James", and, in the end credits, Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son." There is a strong case here to be made for limited resources breeding creativity, because Napoleon got far better use out of the likes of Alphaville, Jamiroquai, The White Stripes, and When in Rome. In Broncos, a song is laid over a silent montage as a lazy way to get out of the numerous storytelling holes the Hesses put themselves in.

Amateur movie producer Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jimenez) casts himself as a bald female and Benjamin's "guardian angel" Dusty Crissop (Mike White) as Bronco in his no-budget VHS adaptation of "Yeast Lords." After Chevalier gets his hands on "Yeast Lords", Bronco somehow become Brutus (Sam Rockwell), an effeminate prancer who wears pink.

The higher budget also allowed for the casting of familiar actors, another area that amplifies the disappointments of the film. Angarano, one of the sturdier young talents of today, doesn't get much to do beyond looking semi-normal amidst weirdos. White is clearly better suited to writing and small parts than the prolonged broadness of his shaggy, mustachioed walking joke here. Coolidge is perhaps too fine in the thankless parental role, even though the film is no worse than several of her other credits. I don't understand the appeal of Nacho's Jimenez, particularly when Napoleon's Pedro, Efren Ramirez, looks similar enough and is presumably available besides being undoubtedly more qualified.

When I think of his make-up commitments, I feel especially sorry for Sam Rockwell, who I'm convinced has an Academy Award in his future. I can understand his casting and his presumed attraction to the project, being well aware of the fun he brought to somewhat kindred projects like Galaxy Quest and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He hardly gets a chance to do anything clever in the fantasy scenes here, which change his hero into a grossly exaggerated gay type in Chevalier's rewrite. (Thinking renders such camp treatment nonsensical, but the sequences, cued by characters reading, are already quite precarious.)

The one bright spot in the cast and in nearly the entire film is Jemaine Clement, whose supporting performance was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Broncos' only honorable recognition. Clement, who had already channeled Napoleon Dynamite in the Kiwi film Eagle vs Shark, makes the very most out of his too few moments. His turn as the pompous, calculated, plagiaristic British pulp author is a riot and rewards enduring the many stretches he's off-screen. Clement has already established himself as one of the funniest people working today and here he displays his versatility in characterization. He may be the only one to emerge from this project entirely unscathed, although it's unfortunate this stands as one of his few leading film credits at a time his acting career is due to take off.

Buy Gentlemen Broncos on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned or Subtitled
Release Date: March 2, 2010
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98 (Reduced from $27.98)
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($39.99 $19.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Gentlemen Broncos looks great in the DVD's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The Hesses again populate their film with eclectic production design and unfashionable clothing, captured in maintained static shots. There are a few grainy spots, but for the most part, the clean, vibrant picture satisfies. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is as low-key as the film, but it does seriously spring to life on some of the immersive (but inane) fantasy sequences.

This film's equivalent of Pedro (Hector Jimenez) and Kip (Daniel "Doc" Love) discuss the possibility of the latter's sister doing the former's movies in this deleted scene. Jemaine Clement cracks up during a lesson on fantastical name suffixes in the Outtakes Reel. Director/co-writer Jared Hess tests out a camera steering wheel in the making-of featurette "One Nutty Movie."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

A solid batch of extras begins with an audio commentary by writer/director Jared Hess, writer Jerusha Hess, and director of photography Munn Powell. While the film may be egregious than most, the track is far more interesting than what'd we get from mediocre seasoned filmmakers going through motions. None of the three are compelled to speak much on the filmmaking side of things. The Hesses do, however, share their real-life inspirations from personal experiences to a GameStop employee.

They also point out the many relatives cast as extras. There are some nifty notes to gain from this and those really listening closely may even detect an undercurrent of discontent, as Mr. Hess shares his Chevalier voice and Mrs. Hess sounds negative in only a half-joking way.

Next up are five forgettable deleted scenes (5:50), including two from the filming of one of Lonnie's trailers and two from the Sam Rockwell story adaptations (one with unfinished effects). Judging from the movie's short runtime and remarks in the commentary, I'm guessing there are loads of additional deletions we don't see. But if these represent the best, then there's no need for more.

The Outtakes reel (8:45), subtitled "A Buttload of Keepsakes" after a line in the movie, gives us plenty of footage. Most often, it captures Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement fighting laughter (and losing). It also shows us some random moments from production, some involving the featured lynx.

Last but not least comes "One Nutty Movie: Behind the Scenes of Gentlemen Broncos" (15:25). Its fly-on-the-set approach is much preferable to those taken on standard promotional making-of featurettes and it befits the homegrown production. Seeing raw takes, we are privy to Clement's improvisations. We also get a few unusually substantial interview sound bites from the cast. A piece like this may not make you like the movie, but it helps you appreciate that (and how) it was made.

The disc opens with trailers for the awful-looking I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and for Whip It plus a cool promo for AFI (the American Film Institute). None of these are available from the Trailers menu, but previews of (500) Days of Summer and the 2009 Fame are.

Modeled after the poster art, the DVD's animated main menu looks like something out of Napoleon Dynamite's house.

Benjamin (Michael Angarano) looks visibly appalled by the schlocky movie treatment his story is receiving. Bearded sci-fi author and artist Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) is in his element with a Brutus pillow in hand and hundreds of to-be-signed book copies around him.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Gentlemen Broncos deflates many of my hopes for Jared and Jerusha Hess to create more entertainment on par with the highly enjoyable Napoleon Dynamite. The couple seems to have had their breakout hit in mind making this latest film, but they got the tone wrong, failed to write sympathetic characters, and ended up giving us an incoherent disappointment. It's not bad enough to deserve being strangely pulled from theaters last fall, but that move is somewhat understandable commercially. And critics weren't wrong; it is bad. More troubling, it's bad in the ways that are cited as reasons for disliking Napoleon Dynamite. With the bigger budget and talented actors used here, most viewers are likely to be less forgiving. At this point, though, the negative buzz attached to the film may help to lower audience expectations, while many will be unaware of it and enter with an open mind.

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Related Interview: Michael Angarano, star of Gentlemen Broncos, Sky High, and Forbidden Kingdom

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Reviewed March 30, 2010.



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