News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 27, 2009

‘Gentlemen Broncos’ a saddle-sore mess

By David Germain

HOLLYWOOD — “Gentlemen Broncos” is a comedy so weird, so off, so simply wrong that even freakish hero Napoleon Dynamite would have a hard time lending it his catch word, “Sweet.”

That it comes from the makers of “Napoleon Dynamite” is just sad. Not that “Napoleon Dynamite” is anything more than a sturdy cult favorite, but when that little ode to outsiders became an indie hit in 2004, it did seem a signal of fresh talent with an agreeably askew outlook to challenge the mainstream.

Then the husband-and-wife team of director Jared Hess and co-writer Jerusha Hess went on to make basically the same movie in a bigger way with Jack Black’s “Nacho Libre.”

While “Gentlemen Broncos” is not exactly another “Napoleon” replica, the Hesses strain to mine another misfit story in the same vein.

Once more, we get a downtrodden male hero with crazy ambitions — in the case of “Gentlemen Broncos,” teenager Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), a home-schooled social reject who yearns to become a science-fiction writer.

Like the Hesses’ previous protagonists, Benjamin gradually gathers a support system of family and friends, along with a few adversaries, all of them at least as odd as he is.

While the characters serve somewhat different purposes, “Gentlemen Broncos” also falls into what is now a cliched triumvirate for the Hesses: Strange young leading man, his chaste romantic interest (Halley Feiffer as Tabitha, another aspiring writer who champions Benjamin’s stories), and laconic Latino associate (Hector Jimenez, Black’s sidekick in “Nacho Libre,” this time playing overreaching filmmaker Lonnie, who shoots a no-budget adaptation of one of Benjamin’s stories).

The real test of Benjamin’s mettle comes after his literary hero, washed-up fantasy writer and all-around blowhard Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), swipes the same story of Benjamin’s that Lonnie chooses to film.

Clement, half of the musical comedy duo “Flight of the Conchords,” is the movie’s lone highlight. Though his Chevalier is repugnant and often tiresome, at least he’s funny at times and kind of interesting.

Unlike the expressive Napoleon and Nacho, Benjamin is mostly a meek kitten, Angarano playing him with almost a medicated aloofness much of the time. Feiffer is annoyingly perky, while Jimenez is odious, through both the character’s undeserved bravado and his grating speech, accompanied by gross grimaces.

The rest of the cast ranges from chafing (Jennifer Coolidge as Benjamin’s mom, who works at a nightgown shop and dreams of breaking out with her own garish clothing designs) to woeful (producer Mike White, a bore as a snake enthusiast who becomes a paternal figure of sorts for Benjamin).

Sam Rockwell is insufferable twice over as Benjamin’s sci-fi hero and Chevalier’s effeminate variation in fantasy sequences involving alien yeast farms, warrior cyclopes and battle stags — heavily armed flying robot deer.

There are chuckles early on over some of the oddities — cyborg harpies with mammary cannons, a debate over the proper naming of trolls.

“Gentlemen Broncos” quickly grows saddle-sore, though, as the Hesses pile on one grotesquerie after another. The filmmakers clearly find explosive reptile defecation, gonad theft and projectile vomiting hilarious. Others among us, not so much.

The movie’s a chaotic, infuriating mess that will challenge the most-devoted of the Napoleon Dynamite faithful.

Gosh, so Napoleon wouldn’t be calling “Gentlemen Broncos” sweet. Might he paraphrase another of his lines, “This is pretty much the worst video ever made”? OK, the movie’s not quite that awful, but Napoleon always was prone to a little exaggeration.

“Gentlemen Broncos,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 for some crude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.