Gary’s Off-the-Map Movie Pick: Gentlemen Broncos

From Jared Hess, the mind that brought the universe Napoleon Dynamite, comes Gentlemen Broncos, a 2009 film about bad science fiction, intellectual property, independent filmmaking, blow darts, geodome living, and nightgowns. If you’re looking for something funny and a little unusual, this could be the one for you.

The protagonist of Gentlemen Broncos, Benjamin, is a young science fiction writer seeking publication for his novel Yeast Lords (you read that correctly). He attends a writing conference called Cletus Fest, where he meets a famous writer who eventually steals his work and turns it into a bestseller, Brutus and Balzac. At the same time, a local filmmaker attempts to make an adaptation of Benjamin’s novel.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, but explaining the plot any further will only muddy the waters. Trust me, I tried to explain it to my wife before she saw it, and I did a terrible job. Despite my failure to properly recount the story, though, she still loved the film after watching it.

Here’s what I liked about Gentlemen Broncos. First off, the casting is superb. As with his past work, Jared Hess excels at finding supporting players who are just so odd you know they have to be real. Fans of Jemaine Clement (from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords) will love his turn as Dr. Ronald Chevalier, prolific science-fiction writer, painter, and plagiarizer. Clement fits so well into the Hess-verse, in fact, that it seems a shame he wasn’t around for Napoleon Dynamite.

Jemaine Clement as plagiarizer extraordinaire Dr. Ronald Chevalier.

In an early scene of the film, Chevalier lectures a group of conference attendees on how to spice up bland character names–his method usually comes down to adding the suffix “-ainous” to the original name. Benjamin’s protagonist Bronco is even called “Broncainous” at one point. The session eventually devolves into a discussion of the suitability of “Teacup” as a name for a baby troll. But what makes this so funny is that none of the characters think it’s funny. To them it’s the most important thing in the world.

The always brilliant Jennifer Coolidge plays Benjamin’s mother, his number one fan and aspiring nightgown designer, and Sam Rockwell, an actor I’ve always admired, gains around a million points in my estimation for his portrayals of Bronco and Brutus, the alternate versions of Yeast Lords‘ protagonist. Don’t worry. This makes perfect sense in the context of the story.

On a side-note, the film’s soundtrack is also outstanding. Hess has developed a reputation for throwing light on unknown gems, like he did with “Music for a Found Harmonium” in Napoleon Dynamite. He relies heavily on new-age virtuoso Ray Lynch for much of the atmospheric music in Gentlemen Broncos, and he draws the rest of the selections from artists as diverse as Zager and Evans (“In the Year 2525,” featured over a superb opening credits sequence), Kansas, Buck Owens, Scorpions, Cher, and Black Sabbath. But it all works.

And as to the story, it might help if you’ve ever read some bad science fiction–I’m talking stinky bad–though I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy the film. One reviewer of Gentlemen Broncos complained that it was difficult to believe that a “bad” unpublished science fiction story could be plagiarized and turned into a bestseller. I suspect that reviewer has either never watched the Syfy channel or perused the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore. Yes, there’s still some good science fiction out there, but it’s hard to find, and a lot of what flies off the shelves is stinky bad. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It isn’t limited to science fiction, either.

The inherent stinkiness of the sci-fi and fantasy is part of the fun of Gentlemen Broncos, though I don’t think Hess is ridiculing the genres or the fans. In the way of Napoleon Dynamite, everyone here—jocks, nerds, rich and famous people, liars, cheats, and thieves—is on equal footing. It’s rare to find a film that can truly poke fun at a genre while simultaneously embracing it with all its weirdness, bad storylines, obsessive fans, and stock characters.

The Fine Print: Gentlemen Broncos isn’t for everyone, and like Hess’s best-known films, Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, and his later efforts like Don Verdean and Masterminds, you probably won’t find a lot of people out there who say they “sorta like” this one. You’ll either love it or hate it. Hess has taken a lot of flak for the sheer absurdity of his situations and over-the-top quirkiness of his characters, and there’s certainly no denying it’s here.

Still, I’d like to think Gentlemen Broncos is developing a following out there somewhere. It’s one of those films I imagine having been a lot of fun to make.