Any heat generated by Jared Hess’s oddball debut Napoleon Dynamite had cooled by the time his third film, Gentlemen Broncos, was dumped on to a handful of screens by its neglectful distributor, Fox Searchlight, in 2009. It made just over $118,000 (a fraction of that from a three-day UK run in 2010). Time Out magazine labelled it “unsavoury”, the New York Times a “misfire”. Others were less kind.
To my mind, Gentlemen Broncos is a sincere and ingenious comic masterpiece, which treats serious subjects (faith, identity, authenticity) with a deceptive lightness. Perhaps that deception was too successful; many critics decided there was nothing more to the film than sight gags involving projectile vomit and reptile diarrhoea. How wrong they were. Hess, with his wife and co-writer Jerusha, serves up three interlaced mini-movies, each one nourishing the central narrative about a home-schooled Utah teenager, Benjamin (Michael Angarano, looking like Buster Keaton’s kid brother), whose novella is plagiarised by a fantasy writer.
The offender is Dr Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), a pompous hack cut from the same cloth as Garth Marenghi. Chevalier’s new book has been rejected, while his latest idea, Moon Foetus (“A foetus is found on a moon base – that’s the premise”), proves to be his Monkey Tennis moment. In desperation, he plucks a manuscript from a stack of young authors’ submissions and passes it off as his own.
This is Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, written by Benjamin in honour of his late father, in which the hero Bronco has his testes stolen by an evil overlord who plans to produce from them an army of clones. It’s nuts, in both senses, but Benjamin’s friend Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) gets it: “So Bronco is, like, your dad,” she says, “and his gonads are his seed, which means his gonads are you, which is why they’re so precious.” Bingo.
The movie switches back and forth between Benjamin’s humble life with his mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), and three outlandish dramatisations of Yeast Lords. In the first and most faithful version, the hirsute Bronco (Sam Rockwell) is held prisoner in the Nad Lab. “Someone had stolen his yeast,” intones Benjamin gravely, “and he had gone totally ape-shit.”
The second iteration is the one mangled by Chevalier. Rockwell again plays the hero, now named Brutus and reimagined as a prissy, pink-outfitted queen with glossy platinum locks. The most shambolic take on Yeast Lords is produced by an amateur film-maker, Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez). For the part of Bronco, he ropes in the impassive, crimp-haired Dusty (Mike White), who has been hired by Judith from the local church as a “guardian angel” for her lonely son.
These adaptations collide when Benjamin attends the premiere of Lonnie’s disastrous version on the same evening that he discovers Chevalier’s crime. “Remember who you are and what you stand for!” Judith told him at the start of the film. Now he must work out how.
Running through the movie’s Michel Gondry-style DIY aesthetic is an uncommon visual and thematic consistency. As with its hero’s opus, the imagery here is predominantly testicular. Benjamin lives in a spherical house which resembles a giant gonad; Judith makes oversized popcorn globes called Country Balls and sends him out to flog these oddities, two-per-bag in a clear plastic scrotum, while wearing a hand-knitted jumper embroidered with a pair of fluffy blobs.
Each frame is crammed with joyful, busy-bee detail, placing Hess in the eccentric-humanist small-town tradition of Preston Sturges and Jonathan Demme, but the costumes also elucidate the picture’s broader theme of individuality as a route to enlightenment. Benjamin sports a baseball cap emblazoned with his “Battle Stag” design from Yeast Lords, whereas Chevalier in his Native American-influenced fabrics extends plagiarism and appropriation to his wardrobe. The film closes with a celebration of uniqueness in the form of a fashion show for Judith’s nightwear designs, providing a stark contrast to the fans dressed uniformly in Brutus wigs at Chevalier’s signing session.
It’s fitting, then, that Gentlemen Broncos should itself be so distinctive. The opening credits feature artwork adapted from real fantasy novels; the value of religion in the characters’ lives is incorporated without condescension; the soundtrack jettisons any notion of coolness in favour of rehabilitating cheesy chart hits (In the Year 2525, Wind of Change). Even those immune to the movie overall will have difficulty arguing that Chevalier’s creative writing class on “the power of the suffix” isn’t one of the outstanding comic sequences of this century.
Hess’s film is a work of love – for its characters, for its audience and for the possibilities of a cynicism-free cinema. “Some day, your junk will be seen by all,” Tabatha assures Benjamin. “And it will be awesome.” That’s how I feel about Gentlemen Broncos. Perhaps a film this richly peculiar may not crack the mainstream, but a few more devotees, as well as some critics willing to dig beneath the surface, is the least it deserves.