With GENTLEMAN BRONCOS, Jared and Jerusha Hess hearken back to their maiden effort, NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE, but this is no retread. Though the theme of a loser with dreams staying true to himself and to them is the fodder, this treatment takes it in unexpected but delightfully peculiar directions. It is the celebration of pure imagination without the baggage of a value judgment to cloud the issue. What matters isn’t the value of what is produced, but rather the exhilaration of creation.
The Broncos of the title are the various incarnations of a pulp sci-fi hero dreamed up by Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) as the hero of his latest work, "Yeast Lords.” Benjamin is a fatherless teen being home-schooled by his mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), a dreamer herself with a line of modest sleepwear of her own design that she is sure will one day make her a success, despite the fact that, like Benjamin's prose, it has to it an element of pulp fiction, but not in a good way. When she sends him to a student writer's conference, it seems like a dream come true for Benjamin, with its workshop led by his idol, Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jermaine Clement), a former wunderkind suffering a case of writer's block that may or may not be a boon to literature. Boon or not, after learning that his latest manuscript has been rejected by his publisher, Chevalier, in a fit of desperation, appropriates the manuscript Benjamin has submitted for a conference contest, and, with a little reworking to reflect his own sensibilities, uses it to save his career.
Benjamin, on the other hand, unaware of the plagiarism, leaves the writer's conference disillusioned after a close encounter with his former idol's pretension, and fleeced of his food money by two fellow attendees who fail to have the good grace to then leave him alone. Far from it. Lonni Donaho (Hector Jimenez, who lips are a separate and assertive character in and of themselves), the filmmaker with 83 credits, though most of them are trailers, and Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), his muse, producer, and supplier of romantic scripts, track Benjamin down in order to buy the rights to “Yeast Lords” and turn it into Donaho production 84.
This is an alternate universe where pathos and absurdity have developed the perfect symbiotic relationship. Benjamin, with is hair parted in exactly the wrong place, a face that is soft and sweet, and a soul that is full of a compassion without measure, suffers indignities and disappointment with courage tempered with bemusement. A look at his mother’s sketchbook of lingerie designs drives him to tears, but he gamely wears the dress shirt she crafts for him from jumbo rickrack and the leftovers from one of her frocks. The slow realization that Chevalier is nothing but pompous man strutting in front of him, voice so plummy that fruit rot has set in, that he has nothing to say to him of any interest, much less use, produces a profoundly dumfounded look of innocence lost that imbues Chevalier‘s preening with a streak of tragedy, even as Clement‘s studied, dead-pan delivery makes the writer‘s obsession with suffixes that evoke orifices of the nether regions and the regenerative nature of trolls screamingly funny.
The inner lives of these two are on full display in the Bronco sequences wherein Sam Rockwell assumes the role of the eponymous Yeast Lord. A shaggy mountain man ready for derring-do in Benjamin’s version, a simpering drag queen in high-heels and a cape in Chevalier’s. In both, Rockwell transmutes himself completely and voraciously as in each he yearns for his lost gonads that were removed for, well, it’s not important. What is important is the way the Hess’ have given cinematic life to the fun, perhaps the catharsis, of a fantasy world where conventional human relationships are distilled down to their simplest and least complicated form, and where attack stags and an army of cyclops don’t have to be realistic, just in attendance. There is a primal joy here that transcends the specifics of the fantasy itself, be it yeast lords or modest sleepwear with an insectoid bent.
GENTLEMAN BRONCOS delves into the dark side of human behavior, but does it with a spirit that is loving, if loopy. The first kiss infused with a recent upchuck may not have been the best move, but it also affirms that the true test of a mother’s love is a hot water bottle on a cold day that makes up for the popcorn fixation. Fate may be quirky, but it only seems capricious, and it’s on the side of the good guys, even it if takes a while to get there.