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rochefort [Film Festival 09.25.09] movie review scifi comedy

Year: 2009
Directors: Jared Hess
Writers: Jared Hess
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 5 out of 10

Austin, Texas. The heat is finally coming under control, the sun dresses and flip-flops are slowly giving way to boots and jackets, and one of Austin's best festivals is back. It's Fantastic Fest, people. Day One for me, and it kicked into high gear with the premiere of Jared Hess' latest comedy "Gentlemen Broncos", his third feature, one that exists in the same parallel universe he first introduced us to in "Napoleon Dynamite" and later "Nacho Libre".

Benjamin (Michael Anagarano), a young, withdrawn nerd of a kid who lives with his mom Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) in a house that's been retrofitted with a geodesic dome, fancies himself a sci-fi writer. His latest novella, "Yeast Lords", is a surreal mix-up of heroic sci-fi and fantasy tropes, one that features his hero Bronco (Sam Rockwell), a thickly-bearded John Carter-type on a mission to save his planet from Cyclops warriors and their evil masters, all with some missile-launching deer and a little genital mutilation thrown in for good measure. Benjamin travels to a writers' camp where he meets Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), a swooning but clumsy temptress who wastes no time in borrowing money from Benjamin to buy tampons, and Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), the camp's featured guest speaker and Benjamin's idol, a sci-fi author famous for such works as the "Cyborg Harpy" trilogy. Chevalier gives the camp's young writers a chance at publication by holding a contest in which he'll pick the best new work, so Benjamin submits "Yeast Lords", hoping to win a limited print run and Chevalier's admiration. But Chevalier's career is on the wane and his latest book has been rejected by his publishers, so upon reading Benjamin's opus he decides to rewrite the text and submit it as his own. Cue hilarity.

There's a big difference between being weird and setting out to be weird. Filmmakers like David Lynch make movies that can be hard to shake out of your head because it's clear that they're often working on a very different level than most. Sometimes the work that results is obtuse, but when our oddball creative-types hit their stride they can take us to places that both confound and stimulate. Jared Hess' parallel universe is one that looks a whole lot like our own, except every single person has a glaring and sometimes borderline creepy eccentricity. His is a world of (mostly) well-meaning freaks. This had an interesting effect in "Napoleon Dynamite", but the effect has since worn thin, and in "Gentlemen"'s case wears out it's welcome (and, honestly, my patience) long before the third act. The thing is, if your world is populated by freaks, nobody gets to play it straight, and after a while the effect is akin to a steadily creepy bout of one-upmanship. Worse, the weirdness feels forced, like every actor prepped for his or her role by picking one prop, wig, and facial tic in order to find that "weird vibe" and set themselves apart from all the other wig-wearing, face-twisting, gown-wearing bizarros running around. A truly inspired weirdo could turn this sort of stew into a compelling psychotic circus. In Hess' hands, unfortunately, the lasting effect is numbness.

But I'm hesitantly recommending it anyway, for one chief reason: Jemaine Clement, whose Ronald Chevalier is such a distinctly funny creation that you'll spend every moment he's on screen laughing at his every pause and tic, and ultimately you'll wish the script had made his plagiarism and ensuing rivalry with Benjamin the key focal point. But oddly enough, it's really not. The trailers would have you believe that this movie is some sort of uber-geeky "Rushmore", but its pacing follows the same model as Hess' previous two films, both of which tended to meander off to follow less-interesting plot threads and spend too much time with characters that never really develop despite the attention Hess lavishes on their every move. What's especially frustrating about all this is that the film nails the nerdy excesses of sci-fi fandom while also serving as a love letter to all things geeky. The opening credits, which feature the kinds of paperback covers that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever browsed the science fiction section of their local bookstore, put an instant smile on my face and earned from me a level of goodwill that had sadly dissipated by the thirty minute mark. And when your movie has Sam Rockwell flying around on a rocket-launching battlestag and still elicits yawns, something is horribly, horribly wrong. See it for Clement, if only to wonder at what could have been.

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