As one who didn’t care for Jared Hess’s unexpected indie smash “Napoleon Dynamite” or his studio-produced follow-up “Nacho Libre”—both of which tried to wring laughs from characters who were appallingly dumb (but still supposedly sweet) caricatures of human beings—I can simply say of his latest, you ain’t see nothing yet. “Gentlemen Broncos” is one of those rare movies you watch with jaw permanently agape over what’s been perpetrated on the screen. It’s different, all right—by which one means it’s in a category beyond merely bad, even beyond atrocious. Its awfulness is so profound that it actually takes on a perverse fascination.
The pathetic doofus at the heart of this movie is Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), a Utah teen who lives with his mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) in a geodesic dome somewhere in Utah. She’s a solicitous nutbag who designs hideous clothes (and makes popcorn balls for sale). He’s an ultra-geeky kid whose passion is scribbling sci-fi tales featuring a scraggly hero called Bronco, who’s a stand-in for his dead father. When he goes to a cheesy writers’ camp for dorks like himself, his idol—has-been author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement)—steals his manuscript “Yeast Wars: The Bronco Years,” and—with minor changes like transforming Bronco from a cowboy-like hero to a fey white-haired weirdo called Brutus, turns it into his come-back book.
But “Yeast Wars” is also misappropriated by two oddballs Benjamin meets at camp—Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and her chum Lonnie (Hector Jimenez), who together make terrible movies and want to adapt it as one of their no-budget efforts.
The central element of “Gentlemen Broncos” is a far creepier variant of the kid-goes-after-plagiarist plot that fueled “Big Fat Liar,” the 2002 Frankie Muniz kidflick. But that movie was run-of-the-mill slapstick; this one is another of Hess’s supposedly sympathetic but actually condescending and cruel jokes at the expense of society’s outcasts. Maybe he and his wife, co-writer Jerusha, actually feel something for these characters, but it’s hard to tell that from their treatment of them. Benjamin is a hapless schmo, even worse when he attempts to act than when he simply accepts the humiliations piled on him, and Angarano plays him as a perpetually droopy bore. Even worse are Coolidge, whose batty fluttering quickly grows tiresome (and who must endure a particularly dreadful sequence involving a supposed buyer of her dress line), and Jimenez, whose lip-smacking androgyny is a gruesomely bad joke. Clement wrings whatever smiles he can from the figure of an arrogant fraud, but even here the silky smoothness grows tedious. And Mike White shows up as Dusty, a dopey suitor for Judith who also becomes a player in Lonnie’s movie.
All that’s bad enough, but we also have to suffer through scenes “dramatized” from “Yeast Wars,” in no fewer than three forms. One involves deliberately tacky moments from the piece as Benjamin envisages it—with a hirsute Sam Rockwell playing Bronco. Then there are equally tacky moments from Chevalier’s version of it. And finally there are scenes from Lonnie’s atrocious movie with him and Dusty essaying the roles. Presumably all of these are meant to look like B-movie junk, but they actually make Ed Wood’s pictures look good. (Well, not good. Just better.)
And that’s what Hess seems to be after: a movie so garishly offbeat, so totally deadpan, so carefully lumpish, so extravagantly chintzy, that its contrived weirdness might be taken for wacked-out genius. But the result is merely excruciating.