Napoleon Dynamite seems perfectly well-adjusted (not to mention downright charismatic) compared to homeschooled mama’s boy Benjamin Purvis in “Gentlemen Broncos,” the latest oddball character portrait from one-trick helmer Jared Hess. This time, the misfit in question is an aspiring science-fiction writer easily upstaged by his idol, a pompous (but published) fantasy author, played by “Flight of the Conchords” star Jemaine Clement like the cosmic love child of Tim Curry and Orson Welles. Pic tickled its target demo at Fantastic Fest, though it’s hard to imagine Fox Searchlight reaching enough geeks in theaters to come anywhere near “Nacho Libre’s” $80 million.
Returning to Utah, co-writers Jared and Jerusha Hess have concocted a fresh batch of socially awkward characters to do their comic bidding. Benjamin (Michael Angarano) inhabits a geodesic dome home with his widowed mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and desperately tries to keep his father’s memory alive by writing over-the-top stories about an intergalactic hillbilly named Bronco (whose exploits we see enacted in classic ’70s B-movie style by Sam Rockwell). Benjamin has one heck of an imagination but no life experience to draw from, making for strange, sexually frustrated tales of yeast harvesting and gonad extraction (excrement and testicles being the pic’s two predominant motifs).
At a writers’ camp for like-minded shut-ins, Benjamin meets Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and her best friend, Lonnie, an androgynous “Pat”-like character played by “Nacho Libre’s” Hector Jimenez (whose unisex wardrobe and generally inappropriate conduct offer contradictory clues as to his/her actual gender). With this pair’s encouragement, Benjamin submits his “Yeast Lords” manuscript to a contest judged by his personal hero, washed-up sci-fi sensation Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Clement), who changes a few names and details before submitting it as his next bestseller.
Now called Brutus, Rockwell’s character re-emerges as a tranny space cowboy in several campy cut scenes that reflect Chevalier’s “improvements” to Benjamin’s original vision. Without these frequent Bronco/Brutus digressions, Hess would hardly have a feature on his hands. Plot is hardly the priority in the hour or so that remains, with fanciful comic digressions (including the appearance of Mike White as an ill-advised but much-needed male role model in Benjamin’s life) filling the time until he inevitably confronts Chevalier about the plagiarism.
Not unlike “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Gentlemen Broncos” serve as a study of acute social retardation. But Jon Heder brought something to that character that’s missing from Angarano’s performance, which more closely resembles the slack-shouldered apathy of Napoleon’s wingman, Pedro. As fate stacks up against him, Benjamin merely smolders in anger — not an easy character for an audience to root for. Chevalier may amount to little more than a caricature, but he’s infinitely more compelling onscreen.
The novelty, then, is Hess’ eye for kitschy detail, evident in everything from the sweater Benjamin wears while hawking his mother’s “country balls” to Lonnie’s endearingly amateur camcorder adaptation of “Yeast Lords.” While the effect is caustically misanthropic, the helmer appears to feel genuine affection for these tacky reflections of his Midwestern upbringing (much as he does for the inbred-looking extras who populate the film’s supporting cast). But with no message beyond the superficial absurdity of it all, Hess is in a precarious position to be critiquing the intellect or artistry of anyone else.
The creative team has taken great care in replicating the hand-painted pulp book covers (showcased in a terrific opening credits montage), devoting a good chunk of the budget to making the special effects look as lo-fi as possible, the retro vibe echoed in such vintage tune selections as Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” After upgrading to a rich visual look for “Nacho Libre,” Hess returns to the flat cinema stylings of “Napoleon Dynamite” d.p. Munn Powell.