I love movies made in Utah with Hollywood actors, because often they don't understand the quirkiness of the place where they're filming. They especially don't understand the quirkiness of the culture, even if the filmmakers do.
Gentlemen Broncos* is a movie about a depressed home schooled youngster, Benjamin (played by Michael Angarano), who writes science fiction, and shares the movie with some very odd characters. The movie was written and made by Jared and Jerusha Hess, who made the hit sleeper comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon was filmed in the Mormon town of Preston, Idaho. The Hesses know the Mormon culture, and it seeps into their movies. For instance, Benjamin's mom, played by Jennifer Coolidge, makes modesty lingerie. When I read a local review of the movie the reviewer called it that, but outside reviewers call it "ugly" or "hideous" clothing. The filmmakers presented it without explanation and let everyone watching sort it out in their own way. The Hesses know what modesty clothing is.
Besides the oh-yeah-they-nailed-it thrill of watching the culture I grew up in portrayed in a funhouse mirror, there were a couple of other things I really liked about the movie. One was Jemaine Clement as the egotistical Dr. Ronald Chevalier. Anyone familiar with HBO's Flight of the Conchords knows of this New Zealander actor/musician's gift for deadpan comedy. It is in full view in this movie. No matter what is going on around him Chevalier keeps his expressions the same, whether accused of stealing Michael's unpublished novelette Yeast Lords, or standing in front of a writing group explaining suffixes for alien names--easily one of the most droll and hilarious bits of comedy I've seen this year.
The other parts of the movie I loved were the inserts of fantasy sequences depicting both Benjamin's version of Yeast Lords, as a science fiction homage to his late father, Bronco, and Chevalier's rip-off called Brutus & Balzaak (a pun, "ball sack," referring to Bronco/Brutus' gonad, which is stolen). Sam Rockwell portrays both Bronco and Brutus. In Benjamin's story Bronco is a wild-haired, full-bearded mountain man-styled hero, whereas in Chevalier's Brutus is over-the-top swishy and effeminate. The sequences are out-and-out bizarre, funny, full of cheesy science fiction effects.
Maybe this is something the the audiences don't get. The movie is deliberately made to look low budget. For instance, Benjamin has fallen in with a couple of wannabe filmmakers, Tabatha and Lonnie, portrayed by Halley Feiffer (daughter of cartoonist, novelist, playwright Jules Feiffer), and the toothsome Héctor Jiméniz (Nacho Libre). They make yet another version of Yeast Lords, with the mind-boggling vision of Jiméniz as the female lead. Their video version of Yeast Lords is completely amateurish, but its creators think of it as being on a level of a Hollywood movie. Maybe that's why Gentlemen Broncos was so funny to me. At various times in my life I've known all these people. I just didn't have the foresight to put all of them in a movie together.
Gentlemen Broncos is having a tough time right now. It was going into national release, then the release was canceled. The next day the release was back on. Fox Searchlight, who released the film, probably just doesn't know what to do with a movie that is getting such wildly divergent reviews, which swing from "worst movie ever," (or as one semi-illiterate commenter to the Fox Searchlight site said, "What a waist of time") to reviewers who actually understood the humor and point of view. The one thing that's true is that it isn't making any money. My wife and I, who attended an afternoon screening, were the only two people in the theater.** That can't be good for the future of the film.
Fox Searchlight should take a cue from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can see Gentlemen Broncos going into the midnight theater circuit. The '70s rock score--the title song is "In the Year 2525" by Zager and Evans--is very apt for the movie, and I see this movie picking up a cult status. It's strange, it's of Utah--I recognized several locales, including a high school I used to visit every day on my job--and it's funny. Jemaine Clement is an exceptional comic actor. So are Héctor Jiméniz, Halley Feiffer and Jennifer Coolidge. Michael Angarano, who played Benjamin, plays the straight man in the group, but he's a fine actor. Where the casting people found the odd extras who are populating this movie I don't know. I've lived in Utah for decades and have never seen such an aggregation in one place. The Hesses have a gift for the bizarre, perfect for the cult movie crowd.
*They might want to consider changing the title, which is baffling, even to those of us who know that "Bronco" is a character in a movie within the movie.
**Speaking of bizarre, when we bought our tickets we had to buy reserved seats. We had a computerized seating chart and we picked out our seats. We went into the theater when it was still dark and found our seats with great difficulty. We watched the movie from the first row of the second tier, surrounded by 1,000 empty seats. In retrospect, considering what we had just watched, it seemed appropriate.