Once upon a time there was a weird little thrift-shop comedy called Napoleon Dynamite. It came out of nowhere (well, almost nowhere: Utah) with a no-name cast, adhered to no known comedic formula, and became a smash.
While it captured lightning in a bottle, it had unfortunate aftereffects. It gave its giraffe-like star, Jon Heder, a subsequent acting career that defines the term "sophomore slump." And it empowered writer/director Jared Hess to keep making movies where eccentricity outweighs humor. First, there was the disappointing Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black as a Mexican monk who moonlights as a masked wrestler. Now there's Gentlemen Broncos, a tedious and unfocused concoction involving science fiction, plagiarism and the nightgown industry.
Where Napoleon's characters were oddly adorable ugly ducklings, Gentlemen's are merely awkward. Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a solitary kid who lives in a dome house with his doting single mom (Jennifer Coolidge). It's a creative home: She designs hideous fashions and he fills notebooks with lurid sci-fi novellas. At Cletus Fest, "the best writer's camp in Utah," Benjamin meets bossy Tabatha, a shameless tease, and his idol, Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement of TV's Flight of the Conchords), a pretentious fantasy author on the skids.
The flimsy plot revolves around Chevalier plagiarizing Benjamin's manuscript Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, and changing the he-man hero into a lisping sissy. The film dramatizes both writers' versions, with Cyclops soldiers, flying battle stags and bald space babes. Sam Rockwell (Moon) earns a lifetime Good Sport merit badge by playing both bearlike Bronco and delicate, hair-swishing Brutus.
The story blows here and there like a tumbleweed, with Benjamin discovering his manhood by standing up to his false idol. Angarano, whose odd hangdog face has a winsome solemnity, is one of the few performers to emerge unscathed. The film's grotesque violence extends to firehose-caliber projectile vomit, laser-firing bra cannons and a poisoned dart shot into Ben's mother's chest.
When she's struck, you think: Look on the bright side — she may get to miss the rest of the movie.
Starring: Michael Angarano, Jennifer Coolidge, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Jared Hess
Rated PG-13 for crude humor
Colin Covert writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.