Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at Jared Hess’ 2009 film Gentlemen Broncos.
Last Time on ‘A Second Glance’: Elvis: The Movie (1979)
Jared Hess is a polarizing figure in the best of times. You either love his movies or hate them with a fiery passion. Love or hate, Hess is a cult sensation. His first two films, Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, are bonafide hits. Now, with Masterminds premiering September 30th, it’s time to look at the one that flopped: Gentlemen Broncos.
Gentlemen Broncos concerns Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a quiet teenager with a big imagination. Ben writes science fiction yarns starring Bronco, a man’s man hero based on his late father (Sam Rockwell). Ben is obviously still dealing with grief and concerned for his mother, not to mention an adolescent lack of confidence. Ben’s timidness makes him an easy doormat for Tabatha, a pretentious girl obsessed with horses and Paris, France. Tabatha (Hailey Feiffer) and her friend Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez) are terrible filmmakers who want to adapt Ben’s story. To help his mother he sells the film rights to his story to Lonnie and watches them ruin his story.
To make matters worse, Ben’s story is stolen when he submits it to a contest. Ben’s personal hero, science fiction writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) has stolen his story and printed it as his own. Ben slowly reaches his breaking point and takes action.
A Whole Other Layer
Your own mileage may vary. Jared Hess’ writing has a dog whistle effect where you either get it or you hate it. Hess is a film-maker of the same stripe as Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry. His movies depict a sort of hyper-real fantasy world of pastel colors and vintage decor. His characters and settings are ugly and unpleasant yet charismatic after a fashion. There’s a real human heart beating beneath the absurdity out of which he mines both comedy and drama.
His characters are salt -of-the-Earth folk. They aren’t exciting or dynamic but that’s just because they’re regular nobodies like you or I. A lot of reviews of this movie call out Michael Angarano’s performance as lifeless. True, his character lacks the goofy confidence of Jack Black’s Nacho or Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite. Those characters are big personalities that see themselves as the hero of their own story. Ben is quiet, submissive, and lives primarily in his own imagination. In this way, Ben is arguably the most accurate filmic representation of an average teenage boy. Ben is sad and pathetic and ridiculous because that’s what teenagers are. Every scene of this movie revels in the inherent ridiculousness of human behavior. Whether in Lonnie and Tabitha’s awful movies, Chevalier’s ostentatious writing or the three movies-within-a-movie based on Ben’s book.
A Great Sense of Humor
This is the driving force behind most of the film’s best jokes, which are belly-laugh inducing if you can get behind them. The two most dependable sources of laughter are Chevalier and Ben’s “mentor” Dusty. Dusty is played by Mike White in a blond John Oates wig and mustache ensemble. Everything about Dusty reeks of trying too hard to seem cool. His introduction in the film involves him walking in draped with a python. The snake completely undercuts any real “cool” credibility he may have by explosively voiding it’s bowels all over his shirt. It’s a gross-out joke but it’s so sudden and unexpected that the humor comes more from the surprise than anything.
Chevalier is a masterpiece of egotistical buffoonery. Jemaine Clement flexes all his comedic muscles as a character whose every line is over-dramatic, instantly quotable, and hilarious. Chevalier constantly wears a Bluetooth earpiece that he never uses, even in scenes where he uses a cell phone. He seems to not merely be a character, but the very archetype of the self-important literary types.
This is to say nothing of Sam Rockwell in two different takes on Ben’s novel. Bronco is hyper-masculine in Ben’s version and effete in Chevalier’s. Rockwell’s performance perfectly complements the kooky visuals and nonsensical narrative. I would happily watch any of the movies within this movie.
Why Does Gentlemen Broncos Deserve a Second Glance?
Gentlemen Broncos isn’t just some dumb misunderstood comedy it’s a genuine diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, about 25% of people would like it. Only about 50% of those people know it exists. Maybe 10% of those people have even seen it. There’s a good possibility you may watch this movie and absolutely hate it. But Gentlemen Broncos showed a major evolution for Jared Hess.
Gentlemen Broncos is brave, brash, and extremely bizarre. It’s a perfect encapsulation of why Jared Hess is either a genius or a moron, depending on your take. It’s a film about identity, confidence, and the power of imagination. A rare subversive inspirational movie. Maybe you won’t like it, but you should definitely see it. Gentlemen Broncos is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant.