When parody is doomed to fail
By John Anderson
Friday, Nov. 6, 2009
What Michael Bay did for the Hollywood blockbuster with his second "Transformers" movie, Jared Hess has now done for the low-budget indie with "Gentlemen Broncos" -- namely, stain an entire genre with a sense of soulless calculation. The entire concept of the quirky-cum-heroic outsider -- which in modern times has evolved from the Brandoesque antihero into the Jon Heder-ish uber-nerd -- has finally had its metaphorical hall pass revoked.
A study in dweebishness-without-redemption, "Gentlemen Broncos" isn't a real independent film any more than the airless "Amelia" is an independent film. But both seem to confirm the suspicion that Hollywood simply doesn't know what it's doing anymore, assuming it ever did. What seems more pronounced of late is a sense that a lawyerly aesthetic has finally pushed anything human out of the way of the camera and that even a company like Fox Searchlight -- part of an evil empire, sure, but up till now a beacon of hope -- has surrendered to its corporate DNA.
There's a sadness to "Gentlemen Broncos" because it illustrates one of the golden rules of our culture-as-commerce. Namely that one must be able to repeat oneself, ad nauseam, even in the case of a charmingly goofball movie like Hess's "Napoleon Dynamite," which cannot be replicated because its singularity is its charm. But tell that to a roomful of suits who are deciding what the kids will think is groovy.
Tell it to Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), the home-schooled sci-fi geek who lives in a geodesic dome and whose only friend seems to be his mother (Jennifer Coolidge), who spends her time designing chaste nightgowns for a line she calls Decent Beginnings. (All the details, apparently, are digs at Hess's home turf of Utah, and its dominant religion.) When Benjamin heads off for a weekend writers' camp called Cletus Fest, he meets the untrustworthy Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and his hero, the insufferable author Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). To salvage his failing career, Chevalier steals Benjamin's book and passes it off as his own. In an effort to be ridiculous, Tabatha and the perpetually grimacing Lonnie (Hctor Jimnez) buy the rights to Benjamin's novel so Lonnie can adapt it for the screen.
If you haven't figured it out already, the only thing "Gentlemen Broncos" has in common with cowboys is its apres-rodeo bouquet.
It has been said that you can't parody parody, but Hess and his wife/co-writer, Jerusha Hess, apparently haven't heard, because they take everything one misguided step further, laying on so many layers of spoof it's impossible to find anything funny. Benjamin's imaginings of his "Yeast Lords" story are enacted in cheesy sci-fi style, with a game Sam Rockwell playing Bronco, the studly savior of a futuristic civilization. After Lonnie gets hold of the book, we have to watch his version roll out, with Tabatha and Dusty -- Benjamin's mom's long-haired, slack-jawed suitor, played by Mike White -- portraying Bronco and his sidekick. Chevalier's ripoff version also features Rockwell, as an effeminate spaceman in a platinum bob. One version is worse than the other; the jokes all seem to involve digestion and genitalia, and between Lonnie's characterization and the bewigged Rockwell, there is a bit of homophobia mixed in with the space dust.
On the bright side, Clement ("The Flight of the Conchords," "Eagle vs. Shark") is occasionally hilarious as the posturing gasbag Chevalier. And Angarano, despite a profoundly ungratifying role, shows that he is really a wonderful actor, one with range and sensitivity. What he needs now is a new agent.
Anderson is a freelance reviewer.
At Landmark's Bethesda Row. Contains adult content and crude humor.