?Gentlemen Broncos? falls short of ?Napoleon? humor

By By Steve Coons

By Steve Coons

The opening credits montage for “Gentlemen Broncos,” the latest from “Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess, might be the most successful part of the film. The credits and titles are placed on the covers of a rotating selection of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks while the Zager and Evans tune “In the Year 2525” provides the soundtrack.

“I didn’t really read a lot of science fiction books, but I loved the covers,” Hess said, and the covers used in the sequence8212;and most of the sci-fi and fantasy related art used throughout the film8212;are amusingly absurd. The opening sequence, though, borrows heavily from the colorful opening to Hess’ more successful debut. Lifting jokes from “Napoleon Dynamite” is a tactic used again and again throughout the film, but never with as much success as in those first moments.

The action begins as Benjamin, played by Michael Angarano, is shepherded onto a bus by his mother, Judith, played by Jennifer Coolidge. Coolidge, whose acting is predictably hammy, is sending her son to the best writer’s camp in the state: Cletus Festival.

Along the way, he meets up with a love interest who writes French mysteries, the Noah Baumbach regular Halley Feiffer, and her best friend, Lonnie, played by Héctor Jiménez, recognizable as Jack Black’s sidekick in Hess’ “Nacho Libre.” But already the film is on shaky ground, as Hess’s characteristically lazysight gags8212;usually involving food, clothes, or bad teeth8212;threaten to dominate the action. Luckily, Cletus Festival is more cosmopolitan than it would seem, and the science fiction-infused segment that follows saves the film from complete failure.

Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” plays Benjamin’s hero, Dr. Ronald Chevalier, author of the Cyborg Harpy trilogy and the guest of honor at Cletus Festival. In one of the film’s better scenes, Chevalier lectures on the power of the suffix in character names, reacting negatively to Bronco8212;the name of the protagonist of Benjamin’s novel8212;suggesting Bronconius, or perhaps Broncanus.

The possibilities with Chevalier seem endless, even if the jokes are a little tired. However, he’s only on the screen long enough to steal Benjamin’s novella Yeast Lords, turning Bronco into a transvestite named Brutus. He decides on this plagiarism after his publisher threatens to fire him after an extended period of poor sales. Most of the action that follows is directed toward resolving this betrayal.

Yeast Lords is a Dune knockoff written in honor of Benjamin’s late father.

“The yeast is the spice,” Hess said. Bronco, the hero of Benjamin’s novella, played by Sam Rockwell, fights against a testicle-stealing overlord who guards his yeast fields with battle stags and surveillance does8212;stuffed deer equipped with serious weaponry.

“Those are a lot of ideas that I had as a kid8212;drawing a battle stag on my Trapper Keeper8212;and it was kind of indulgent and fun to bring it to life,” Hess said. But even in a film that allowed him to indulge in so many of his youthful fantasies in a way that will leave plenty disgusted, Hess said he still felt the sting of the censor.

“Some of my favorite moments that were probably too strange for audiences, we ended up cutting,” Hess said.

If the moments were as strange as reported, it’s a shame they were cut instead of the banal subplot of Lonnie’s student production of Yeast Lords, accused by Chevalier as an unauthorized adaptation put on by “preteen circus freaks.” Actually, Hess could have cut almost anything other than the bits with Clement or Rockwell, who easily steal the show despite limited time on screen. The movie is successful when it focuses on cyborg harpies with mammary cannons, masculine or transvestite space warriors taking down battle stags with a stream of colorful vomit or the ridiculously over-the-top Chevalier. Instead, it tries to succeed as a “Napoleon Dynamite” retread with sci-fi flourishes and can’t help but disappoint.

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