‘Gentlemen Broncos’ takes a quirky ride through small town, fantastic fiction

August 21, 2012

The 2009 independent film Gentlemen Broncos has plenty of amusing and charming moments, but taken as a whole, this picture is uneven at best.

The plot revolves around Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) and his mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), who live in small-town Saltair, Utah. Benjamin has written a bizarre science fiction epic, “Yeast Lords.” But things go badly after he first shows it to two new friends and then submits it for a contest being judged by a famous but now struggling science fiction and fantasy author.

Fellow home-schoolers Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and (Héctor Jiménez) buy the film rights to Benjamin’s story with a $500 check but approach the project in unfortunate fashion. Even worse, Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) publishes “Yeast Lords” in his own name, under the title Brutus & Balzaac, after making a number of his own regrettable creative changes.

Angarano strikes a lot of high notes as a lovable loser, and Coolidge is excellent as his mother, who is desperate to help herself and her son realize their dreams despite major obstacles. Clement (a co-creator of the parody band Flight of the Conchords, which also became a fine TV series) is simply delicious as the pompous Chevalier.

Sam Rockwell, Suzanne May and Edgar Oliver sparkle as characters in Benjamin’s tale. (As in Moon, which starred Rockwell, the story here also involves multiple variations on his character.) Feiffer and Mike White, as a friend of the Purvises, also turn in fine performances.

Jiménez, too, is fully committed to his role — but I was never sure what to make of his character. Are Hess and his fellow screenwriter, Jerusha Hess, using Lonnie to make fun of homosexuals? Effete Mexican immigrants? People who lisp? Teenagers who continually mold their lips into unusual pouts? Whatever the intent, I was filled with misgiving throughout virtually all of Lonnie’s scenes.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Tabatha, either. She’s both an instigator of trouble and a love interest for Benjamin. But nearly every time I thought that the movie would become a love story, or at least a tale of friendship, Tabatha would disappear for long stretches. I felt similarly deked out by a character at the beginning of the movie, who has two prominent scenes and then vanishes.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Gentlemen Broncos is that the writers don’t seem to have entirely figured out whether we should be laughing with or at its characters. All three versions of “Yeast Lords,” including Benjamin’s original, are rather silly. But everyone in the film seems to love it (or to love two of its versions) without reservation.

Meanwhile, Chevalier seems to be revered by everyone he encounters, even though his clothing and mannerisms mark him as a pompous fraud — and even though his writings and writing advice appear to be much sillier than anything Benjamin might ever concoct.

But while Benjamin is skeptical of silliness on the part of his mother, he seems wholly taken in by Chevalier and a number of other characters. This partially selective gullibility made him less likable and not credible.

Rabid science fiction and fantasy fans, connoisseurs of independent film and aficionados of quirky high school/coming-of-age tales may enjoy Gentlemen Broncos. Others should approach with caution.

Anyone who does get hands on the DVD of this film should be sure to check out the extras. As with many comedies released in recent years, the disc’s special features include deleted scenes and improvised dialogue that did not make the final cut; there’s also a sprightly making-of featurette that includes some additional hilarious improvisation.

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