But even some of Napoleon Dynamite’s most diehard boosters never heard, I gather, about Gentlemen Broncos, the third film from directors Jared and Jerusha Hess. Nacho Libre, which came between, starred Jack Black as a Mexican monk-turned-secret underground wrestler. All three display the Hesses’ strong fascination with social outcasts in marginal, religious patches of North America, chintz and tchotchkes piled high, and outsider art so inept that it very nearly comes around the other side. Where the moon-booted Napoleon had his Preston, Idaho, the home-schooled, Benjamin has Tooele, Utah. Where Napoleon drew heavily “shaded” notebook-paper-and-pencil portraits, Benjamin writes a novel called Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years.
I hope this doesn’t sound too contrarian-for-contrarianism’s-sake, but I like Gentlemen Broncos the best of all three Hess pictures. Wikipedia says that “due to poor reviews the national release was pulled from theatres,” which astonishes me. “Due to poor reviews?” If distributors pulled films due to poor reviews, Paramount would have spared us the Transformers series. I have to assume something else went on behind closed doors; maybe some higher-up found his excuse not to have to pay for a promotional campaign. But this movie turns out to work with both greater ambition and greater specificity than its predecessors, which makes it a much more worthwhile viewing experience. I probably won’t watch it again, but I’m glad I watched it once.
Gentlemen Broncos offers more to laugh at than did Napoleon Dynamite, not least the awkward dignity it gives the lead girl’s linguistic gaffes (“I’ve been studying in Belgium — namely, five months”) and the constant stream of ridicule — ridicule born of deep familiarity — it aims at pulp sci-fi’s sad grandiosity. Portraying Benjamin’s one-time hero Dr. Ronald Chevalier in a series of maroon turtlenecks, various Native American-y accessories, and a never-removed Bluetooth earpiece, Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords nails the pompous pathos you see when sci-fi and fantasy novelists surround themselves with supplicant fans. The Hesses come from a midwestern Mormon background, which region and religion both seem to have unique relationships with science fiction; that alone opens up plenty of rich storytelling soil.
Alas, they grow rather less in it than I’d hoped. Just like Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos works as an occasional master class in wonky production design (I still think about the mansion of Jack Black’s champion arch-rival, preserved in burnt-orange 1970 amber) and an ongoing reverse master class in how laughter works. These films don’t base their humor on their characters’ personalities, nor on the interaction between them, nor on the consequences and implications of their situations. They want you to laugh just because something is: because Benjamin lives in domed house, because he writes the word “yeast” so often, because his mom makes hideous nightgowns, because his would-be girlfriend shoots movies on VHS. Or because Nacho stumbles around and feeds orphans glop. Or because Napoleon wears a brown suit. We get an unceasing succession of free-standing (to use Ebert’s critical term of choice) jokes without punchlines. Now, I don’t insist punchlines — far from it — but then, why all the setup?