Director – Jared Hess, Screenplay – Jared Hess & Jeruscha Hess, Producers – John C. Kelly & Mike White, Photography – Munn Powell, Music – David Wingo, Music Supervisor – Randall Poster, Visual Effects – Asylum, Miniatures – Schlatter Studios, Special Effects Supervisor – Jefferson ‘Zuma Jay’ Wagner, Makeup Effects – Alterian Studios, Production Design – Richard A. Wright. Production Company – Rip Cord Productions
Michael Angarano (Benjamin Purvis), Jermaine Clement (Dr Ronald Chevalier), Jennifer Coolidge (Judith Purvis), Halley Feiffer (Tabatha Jenkins), Hector Jimenez (Lonnie Donaho), Sam Rockwell (Bronco/Brutus), Mike White (Dusty Crissup), Suzanne May (Vanaya/Venonka), John Baker (Don Carlos), Johnny Hoops (Kanaya/Kenonka), Edgar Oliver (Lord Daysius/Duncan), Josh Pais (Todd Keefe), Clive Revill (Cletus)
Teenager Benjamin Purvis lives at home with his mother, a struggling clothing designer. Benjamin is a novice science-fiction writer and so his mother sends him to the Cletus Festival, a writer’s workshop for home-schooled kids. On the bus ride there, Benjamin befriends novice romance writer Tabatha Jenkins and filmmaker Lonnie Donaho. The guest at the workshop turns out to be Benjamin’s hero, science-fiction writer Ronald Chevalier. Chevalier announces a competition for new writers and Benjamin enters the manuscript for his science-fiction epic ‘Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years’. After reading ‘Yeast Lords’, Tabatha announces that she and Lonnie want to make a film out of it. At the same time, Chevalier’s publisher rejects his current manuscript and so he takes ‘Yeast Lords’, changes the names of the characters and publishes it under the title ‘The Adventures of Brutus and Balzaak’ to great success. Meanwhile, Benjamin is dismayed to find that Tabatha and Lonnie are making a few ‘improvements’ to the story in their film version. Next, he finds Chevalier accusing him of having ripped his book off.
Director Jared Hess had a runaway sensation with Napoleon Dynamite (2004), a quirky indie film that became a major box-office hit, earning some $44 million and turning its nerd hero Jon Heder into a new star. Napoleon Dynamite was Jared Hess’s ticket to the mainstream, although the next comedy he chose was Nacho Libre (2006) starring Jack Black as a Mexican Catholic priest who accidentally discovers fame as a lucha libre wrestler. Most audiences scratched their heads at the bizarreness of the premise but Jack Black was enough to make it an $80 million box-office hit. For his third film, Gentlemen Broncos, Jared Hess declined studio-backed filmmaking offers and returned to shoot independently in his home state. Hess co-writes all of his films with his wife Jeruscha. Both are practicing Mormons – and not too surprisingly live in Utah.
Gentlemen Broncos is another of Jared Hess’s nerd comedies in the same vein as Napoleon Dynamite. Both Napoleon and Michael Angarano’s Benjamin Purvis here have fairly similar character arcs of being nerds with certain ideas about what they want to be and the story follows the trials and tribulations of their struggle to assert such. Interviews with Jared Hess at the time of Gentlemen Broncos‘ release make for interesting reading. Like Napoleon Dynamite, much of what goes on on screen is autobiographical on his part. Hess based the character of Benjamin on a combination of himself during his teens – apparently much of The Yeast Lords was a story that Hess wrote as a teenager – and a present-day nephew. Benjamin’s clothing and popcorn ball designing mother (Jennifer Coolidge) is based on Hess’s own mother, while many of the other characters in the film are based on people that Hess knows. All of that said, Gentlemen Broncos, though it aims for exactly the same places, failed to find the same cult audience as Napoleon Dynamite and received very mixed reviews.
The main problem with Gentlemen Broncos is an unlikeable lead in Michael Angarano. In everything that I have seen Angarano in, he has a weedy annoying presence. He is like the depressed and uncomfortably awkward kid who sticks out like a sore thumb at a social gathering. He made the worst hero in the entire history of martial arts cinema as the lead in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Jared Hess has wanted to create another nerd hero but there are poles of difference between Jon Heder’s gawky charm in Napoleon Dynamite and Michael Angarano’s limpid non-presence here. This also brings us to the story. It is largely (and almost certainly quasi-biographical on the Hess’s part in this regard) one of the travails found by a creative individual as they encounter problems of plagiarism and inept translation of ideas by others. However, Michael Angarano’s presence makes this a singularly glum story. He traipses passively through as the Hess’s heap one indignity after another on his shoulders. The result is not unakin to the characters in Coen Brothers films who are cruelly taunted and humiliated by the two brothers. You keep wishing that Angarano would stand up and do something rather than morosely slump through the story. The end contains a last minute flick of the deus ex machina plotting switch that allows Benjamin to gain his comeuppance, which feels exactly like an arbitrary insertion of a happy ending because it was required rather than anything that has ever been earned by the protagonist.
At least, the others in the cast balance out Michael Angarano’s non-presence – notably Jennifer Coolidge as Angarano’s kooky mother and especially Jermaine Clement’s frequently sidesplitting (and show-stealing) role as Chevalier. Clement gets all the choice monologues and delivers them with a pompous gravitas that leaves one in titters. (Clement of course came to fame in the hit cable comedy series The Flight of the Conchords (2007-9), although with some irony his first leading role was in Taika Waititi’s film Eagle vs Shark (2007), which was accused by a number of reviewers of being a copy of Napoleon Dynamite (even though it wasn’t). This cannot help but seem unconsciously ironic casting on Jared Hess’s part, especially given that Gentleman Broncos‘ theme is all about authors stealing others idea). The worst performance in the film comes from Hector Jimenez in what one presumes is meant as a caricature of a flamboyantly gay man where Jimenez seems determined to mime out his performance to the entire world via gymnastic contortions of his lips.
If anything, Gentlemen Broncos resembles something akin to a Wes Anderson film – think of a smalltown version of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) set among the working class poor – crosshatched with Be Kind Rewind (2008). Jared Hess acknowledges a clear enjoyment of science-fiction and says the film contains many references to his favourite science-fiction films – Jermaine Clement’s enunciation patterns are apparently based on Michael York in Logan’s Run (1976), for instance. Hess claims that The Yeast Lords is fairly much the story he conceived in his teens. This is seen filtered through different interpretations. We have the purebred version that Michael Angarano conceives, which comes as a cod cheesy space opera; there is the cheap no-budget ‘sweded’ version made by Halley Feiffer and Hector Jimenez; and then Jermaine Clement’s rip-off version, which somehow turns the story into a gender-bending high camp variant with the characters in bad wigs. (There seems a constant subtext to all of the alternate versions about giving the story dubious gender-akilter interpretations). Some of the visions are oddly appealing – Star Wars (1977)-type dogfights conducted by people flying on deer that have been armed with missiles and machine-guns; the bizarre image of Sam Rockwell bringing down one of the marauding deer with a stream of pink projectile vomit – but the point of these constant variations on a bad science-fiction story seem to elude one.
Jared Hess next went onto direct Don Verdean (2015), a comedy about a Biblical scholar creating fake relics, and the heist comedy Masterminds (2015).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Jermaine Clement) at this site’s Best of 2009 Awards).