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Gentlement Broncos

Dir. Jared Hess (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

By Rebecca J. Levitan, Contributing Writer

Ah, the pains of adolescence. You live with your dorky mom, who aspires to make clothing out of beach towels and burlap. Your house is a geodesic dome, and your main source of nutrition is your mother’s popcorn balls. There is clearly only one way to cope, and that is to write fairly explicit science fiction about a futuristic mountain man named Bronco—think white suits and flying vehicles—in search of his lost gonads.

Admittedly, adolescence was and is awkward, full of poor fashion choices and bad school lunches, but even the diverse student body of Harvard—with their wealth of obscure interests and experiences—would probably find this description of their teen years a bit far-fetched. Though writer-director Jared Hess aims once more for the brand of oddball humor you might expect from previous films “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre,” the quirky characters of his new movie, “Gentlemen Broncos,” still ring false.

“Gentlemen Broncos” follows the same basic trajectory as “Napoleon Dynamite.” An insular, stammering kid, whose quirks far outnumber his friends, meets a couple of equally weird outcasts. He is forced to start living outside of his fantasy world and gains a modicum of acceptance for who he is in the process. The hero in question in “Gentlemen Broncos” is Benjamin Purvis, played by relative unknown Michael Angarano. Benjamin lives in a small Alaska town with his mother, and copes with the death of his father by immortalizing the “game warden and explorer” in his science-fiction trilogy, “Yeast Lords.”

Benjamin’s adventures begin when he signs up for Cletus Fest, the best young fantasy writers’ convention in the state. En route to the convention by schoolbus, he meets Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), just back from Belgium, who claims to write French mysteries about a stable hand named Pierre. Tabatha sees potential in “Yeast Lords,” and with the help of her friend Lonnie Donaho (Héctor Jiménez), who has a speech impediment, a bowl haircut, and most importantly, a production company, she decides to turn it into a low-budget film.

Acclaimed science-fiction writer Chevalier (Jermaine Clement, the stockier half of the “Flight of the Conchords” duo) also sees potential in “Yeast Lords.” Facing the end of his career, he receives the story as a submission for a writing contest and decides to publish it under his own name. Benjamin, feeling betrayed by both Tabatha and Chevalier, his idol, wanders aimlessly for a while until he finally decides to take a stand.

The movie is firmly rooted in a mythical past (the 1990s) full of sweaters and mom jeans, laminate tables, and a willful ignorance of a larger world outside of that which can be reached by car. It’s a kind of nostalgia for a nerd-kitsch Americana that would be more appropriate 20 years from now. This world is the same one that Hess captures in “Napoleon Dynamite,” only here he seems determined to test the limits of the weirdness of small-town America.

This involves substituting many of the charmingly quirky aspects of “Napoleon Dynamite” for things that are downright bizarre or simply gross. “Gentleman Broncos” contains a very healthy dose of bathroom humor; if projectile vomiting as a key plot point sounds like an excellent idea, this is probably the movie for you. This sense of humor is exemplified in a typical exchange between mother and child, as Benjamin protests to having to sell his mom’s popcorn “country balls”: “I’m not selling two balls in a sack.”

Most of the absurdity comes from the dialogue and props, while the acting remains deadpan. Clement, as Chevalier, recycles his character from “Flight of the Conchords” (which basically involves as little emotion as possible), simply adding feathers, weird leather ensembles, and an earpiece to become the science-fiction god. The rest of the actors follow suit, with the notable exception of indie veteran Jennifer Coolidge, who plays Benjamin’s bubbly, excitable mother. The unabating deadpan irony, when combined with the ludicrous plot, serve to estrange the characters from us rather than endearing them to us.

In “Napoleon Dynamite,” audiences were able to identify with the fear that comes from asking a girl to a school dance, or wanting to be popular, even if we don’t have a llama living in our backyard. It is much harder to connect with someone whose face betrays no feeling and whose prose includes lines like, “He’s the chosen one. He was born with flesh pockets.” By failing to give viewers a glimpse into its main character’s emotions, “Gentlemen Broncos” ends up feeling more like Benjamin’s clumsy science fiction than the work of a seasoned comedic director.

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at rlevitan@fas.harvard.edu.

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