Like most movies championed as cult classics, Gentlemen Broncos never stood a chance. Upon an initial onslaught of abysmal reviews, the movie was yanked from its national theatrical release and cast to the damned life of a straight-to-DVD comedy. Unfortunately, it probably will never have its chance as a cult classic either. To help spread its name, I’ve purchased the DVD every time I’ve seen it for less than $5, more often than you’d expect. What I’ve discovered is that comedies are hard to defend. A joke doesn’t improve upon explanation. In particular, the movie’s gross-out gags require a physical reaction to work. For instance, when a pet snake releases diarrhea on an unflinching guardian angel, you either laugh or you don’t. I’ve played this movie for many friends in the past five years and their reactions to that scene understandably vary. Instead of defending the movie’s baser elements, though, I’d like to praise its more artistic ambitions. Gentlemen Broncos is the coming-of-age story of a young artist struggling with the loss of his father, the compromise of art vs. commerce, and his hormonal teen desires. Even more so, it’s about how an artist’s (especially a writer’s) vision can be tainted once it is purchased. Gentlemen Broncos is a movie about movies, art about art. If that sounds lofty for a Jerusha & Jared Hess film, it’s because it’s their most personal & ambitious work to date. Their first two films, Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre may share some stylistic characteristics with Gentlemen Broncos, but they also suffer from a distinct personal detachment and lack of ambition that make them inferior by comparison.
Approximating the visual and comedic style of the Hess duo, I’d say they’re combining the meticulous fussiness of Wes Anderson with the juvenile depravity of the Farrelly Brothers. If when you were watching The Grand Budapest Hotel you didn’t pause and wish it were more like Movie 43, you’re not alone. Rationally, the two styles shouldn’t co-exist. Movie 43 actually shouldn’t exist at all, but that’s another matter. What this unlikely stylistic mash-up accomplishes in Gentlemen Broncos, though, is a more accurate depiction of childhood than Wes Anderson’s nostalgia-driven films brilliantly achieve in the abstract. Moonrise Kingdom & Rushmore make me wistful about boyhood, but doesn’t the picture seem incomplete without fart jokes and vomit? Gentlemen Broncos depicts a complete childhood, farts and all. While there are no farts proper depicted on screen, we’re instead treated to a testicle-eating bobcat, a puke-filled kiss, poisonous poo darts, yeast jokes, the aforementioned diarrheal snake and, perhaps worst of all, actor Hector Jimenez’s awful mouth. It would be a fool’s errand to contend that Gentlemen Broncos is a better coming-of-age film about a precocious teen artist than Rushmore, but the Farrelly Brothers brand of juvenile bathroom humor does help round out a more honest depiction in some ways. Either that, or I was just an exceptionally disgusting child.
What Gentlemen Broncos does successfully mimic from Wes Anderson’s aesthetic is the dollhouse-like, controlling obsessiveness of a child’s imagination. The story’s protagonist, Benjamin, is an aspiring science fiction writer, a true nerd. Not only does he organize the novels he’s written in self-decorated binders (stored neatly in a box under his bed, of course) but he also builds doll-scale sets for his favorite scenes. He designs and wears merchandise celebrating his own work. When he’s bummed at a pivotal point in the film, he sits at the edge of his bed reading his most recent triumph, a novel titled Yeast Lords, to himself as a means of exhibiting control. The main conflict of Gentlemen Broncos is how uneasy Benjamin becomes as he loses control over his work. The escapism he’s created for himself in Yeast Lords is compromised in two bastardized versions of his vision, a world he has distinctly established in his own mind. Twisting the knife, the bastardized versions of Yeast Lords are perpetrated upon Benjamin by his only friends and his biggest hero.
Benjamin’s hero is Dr. Ronald Chevalier, a prolific science fiction writer who, unbeknownst to Benjamin, produced his portfolio of pulp novels for the cash, not for the love of art. He betrays Benjamin by plagiarizing Yeast Lords and, worst yet, completely undermines the original vision by changing the names and stripping the main character of his hyper-masculinity. In Chevalier’s version, Brutus & Balzaak, the novel’s hero is a screaming queen Edgar Winter, played on the screen with expert flippancy by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell also plays the hyper-masculine version of the character, Bronco, in the original Yeast Lords. Bronco is an action-hero archetype meant to pay tribute to Benjamin’s dead father. Before he even discovers Chevalier’s betrayal, Benjamin is confronted with another watered-down version of his work. Having sold the rights to Yeast Lords to his two amateur filmmaker friends for a $500 postdated check, Benjamin becomes livid as minor changes are made to his dialogue and the image in his head doesn’t match the small-scale home movie shenanigans his friends are filming. When questioned as to why he wrote Yeast Lords in the first place, Benjamin confesses “I wanted to write a story for my dad. He died when I was young.” It’s easy to see why the integrity of Yeast Lords being compromised would break his heart. Benjamin foolishly asks Chevalier himself for advice regarding his loss of control over the Yeast Lords movie. He confesses, “The idea of someone bastardizing my work really freaks me out.” Chevalier responds, “Cash the check and enjoy the money.” His assertion that writers create for money, as means to make a living, may ring true with adults (especially with adults who write pulp novels for a living) , but it’s a crushing blow for an idealistic teenager. In that moment Benjamin receives an essential life lesson: never meet your idols. This goes doubly true if your idol serves as a replacement father figure.
Although Benjamin loses control of Yeast Lords to inferior imitations, Gentlemen Broncos expertly maintains control of all three versions. Benjamin, Chevalier, and amateur-director Lonnie all are afforded screen-time for their unique visions of the story, which run simultaneously with the main plot. This episodic storytelling recalls the structure of radio serials, comic books, or the old line of sci-fi novels published across multiple magazine issues. Instead of showing different versions of the same scenes, the Yeast Lords story is told from front to end through different lenses. The three versions are still available for comparison, but they resist becoming redundant and instead tell the sci-fi story as a scattered whole. The three versions only start to converge and become chaotic as Gentlemen Broncos’ main conflict comes to a head.
There is some real love for the genre in these scenes. The version of Yeast Lords that plays in Benjamin’s mind is the kind of sci-fi action epic that any dedicated fan of schlock would love to see actualized. Chevalier’s version is a much campier take and feels like an unusually flamboyant episode of the original Star Trek series. Lonnie’s version is thoroughly inept in every way, but exhibits a real love for filmmaking His backyard movies both call to mind the television series Home Movies (he’s made 83 films, “mostly trailers”) and the type of 8mm films directors like Steven Spielberg made in their youth, as described in the minor documentary Sci-Fi Boys. Yes, Lonnie’s films are terrible, but he feels compelled to make them and the quality isn’t that far below real life direct-to-VHS disasters like Redneck Zombies. This range of representations displays a real love and understanding of sci-fi schlock. Even though Chevalier’s camped up version is a blow to Benjamin’s artistic pride, it’s a joy for the audience and provides some of the movie’s funniest moments (Sam Rockwell just devours the scenery in that Edgar Winter getup). Lonnie’s movies are terrible but it’s hard not to share in Benjamin’s love interest, Tabatha’s enthusiasm when she gushes “This is going to be one of those movies that’s actually way better than the novel.”
This genuine love of trashy science fiction is evident as early as the opening credits, as is its love of the Wes Anderson aesthetic, Playing against Zager and the Evans’ novelty hit “In the Year 2525” the credits are worked into neatly arranged pulp sci-fi covers. Although certainly over the top, the artwork on these fake novels isn’t too far from reality. Instead of poking fun at the genre, it plays more like a celebration. I’d totally read any one of those books, and if I were still a teenage nerd they would be all I was reading. This love fest continues as a common thread throughout the film. The three combating versions of Yeast Lords are much sillier and parodistic than the opening credits, but they also have a true appreciation for trashy sci-fi as a subject. Gentlemen Broncos follows a long tradition of movies about movies, but it sharpens its view a little by narrowing in on a specific genre.
Of course, a loving tribute to trashy science fiction is only half the story. The movie also depicts the lives of the teenage nerds obsessed with it. The awkward anti-comedy that’s common to any young nerd’s social skills is laid on thick and early. The teen writer’s camp and multiple Dr. Chevalier book signings are particularly awkward. Even the camp counselors and Chevalier himself seem stuck in an embarrassing suspended adolescence, all exhibiting the social grace of a Tim & Eric episode. Teen nerds everywhere (and the adults they became) should be able to identify with the frustration of being overly-enthusiastic with garbage media no one else seems to care about. The counselors & Chevalier will make adult nerds question just how much of that enthusiasm sticks with you as the years go on and making money becomes necessary. Even though Chevalier claims he is writing purely for profit, you can easily detect the glee in his voice when nerds start nitpicking details in his novels. He geeks out with them and supplies readied answers. In addition to science fiction, these hormonal nerds are also sexually enthusiastic. Benjamin’s love interest, Tabatha, writes thinly veiled erotic fiction about horses & stable boys, sneaks into male dorms, and enjoys moist hand massages with her eyes firmly rolled in the back of her head. Benjamin writes lines like “Take me to your yeast factory” in his own work. Yeast Lords is a testicle-obsessed boy-gets-the-girl story way more forward and self-assured than its creator is in real life. It’s no surprise that Tabatha is the romantic instigator in the pair, since Benjamin is an unsure, passive coward off the page.
Having such a quiet, unassuming protagonist is a blessing in a comedy so dominated by over-the-top performances. Jennifer Coolidge is as ridiculous and loveable as always as Benjamin’s mother. The subplot in which she tries to launch a fashion line of homemade nightgowns not only mimics Benjamin’s own artistic struggle, but also provides such brilliant clothing designs as “Reachable Dream” and “Decent Beginnings.” Also never less than magnificent, Jermaine Clement absolutely kills it as Dr Chevalier. His one minute lecture about cyborg harpies art at the writing camp is one of the most perfect comedic performances I can think of in any film, and it’s quickly followed by a brilliant second lecture about how adding “-anous” or “-ainous” as a suffix on protagonists’ names instantly improves your writing. His performance alone elevates the material to cult-level significance. Sam Rockwell rounds out the film as the third scene-stealer, lisping and grunting his way through two polar opposite versions of the same character, Bronco & Brutus. There’s a reason Benjamin is so quiet and these three heavyweights never interact. The movie needed an unassuming straight man to anchor it down.
Benjamin is the bland everyman of awkward childhoods. Living in Utah, seemingly without an internet connection, he has been culturally left behind. Even his music is outdated. The movie’s soundtrack is mostly 80’s monster ballads, which is a stark contrast with Chevalier’s ever-present Bluetooth. The setting is oddly nostalgic, which along with the film’s gushing love of science fiction and its interest in socially awkward teens, affords the film its air of being a deeply personal work. To borrow a line from Sam Rockwell’s lisping Brutus, it’s as if Jerusha & Jared Hess put a “buttload of keepsakes” in a time capsule. It’s hard not to get swept up in the righteousness of Benjamin’s inevitable victory over Chevalier and Bronco’s victory over the yeast factories, because the movie’s heart really does outweigh any ironic detachment the audience can detect in the snake shit or in Hector Jimenez’s awful, awful mouth. I doubt the Hess duo has found any such satisfaction in their most recent work, an already-cancelled animated version of Napoleon Dynamite. I can only hope their ambitions & personal investment didn’t die with Gentlemen Broncos’ theatrical failure. It really pays off when you can tell they care.