One of the most peculiar and unlikely comedies of all time, Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004 and written by Brigham Young University alumni Jared and Jerusha Hess. Its oddball humour baffled Netflix’s recommendation algorithm, and their subsequent films Nacho Libre (2006) and Gentlemen Broncos (2009) have only narrowed the niche of that unique humour. Gentlemen Broncos has a whopping 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and was received so poorly that it was pulled from theatres. It just so happens to be one of my favourite films.
Like its predecessors, Gentlemen Broncos is a surprisingly earnest piece of filmmaking, and this is what sets it apart from other filmic comedies. Uncynical, and with lines that aren’t all meant to be cash grabs, the humour emerges from its bizarre cast of characters, the noughties gross-out scenes, and its complete dedication to the ridiculousness of classic sci-fi.
The film is about Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), a small-town teenager who writes science fiction stories. The plot revolves around his work Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, a title which never fails to make me giggle. On one hand, he takes it to a SFF writing camp led by his hero Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement doing an uncanny Alan Rickman impression), who proceeds to steal his story and spice it up. Chevalier’s class on fantasy names is a stand-out and completely hysterical scene to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the genre. On the other hand, his friend Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) shows it to her friend Lonnie (the wonderfully ridiculous Héctor Jiménez), who directs a terrible low-budget rendition of the film which also takes a hard left from Benjamin’s original work. Sandwiched between these plot lines are enactments of Yeast Lords and Chevalier’s plagiarised version, with their differences played up for hilarious effect. In both versions, a particularly unhinged Sam Rockwell plays Bronco, but as in other roles, he brings humanity to his ridiculous character.
This is made all the more meaningful because Bronco is Benjamin’s tribute to his late father. Not only is this a tale of artistic vision and its integrity, it’s a tale about Benjamin’s quest to connect with the father he didn’t know. The distortion of his original story is a twisting of his portrait of his father, once again enacting distance between the two. This is a completely ridiculous and hysterical comedy, but underscored by Benjamin’s genuine desire to know his father in some way.
And, of course, there’s plenty of phallic imagery to go along with this lost figure of masculinity. But it’s a lot funnier when it includes the phrase “Nad Lab”.
The film’s humour is wonderfully juvenile, with puking (and subsequent kissing), reptile diarrhoea, and the aforementioned ’nads. It’s also no-holds-barred campy, taking the ridiculousness of early sci-fi and dialling it up to eleven. Add to this a little bit of Alan Partridge (“Moon Foetus … a foetus is found on a moon base”). It’s not to everyone’s taste, but its bold distinctiveness is what makes it so funny to those who enjoy that.
Currently experiencing a much-deserved renaissance, Jennifer Coolidge stars as Benjamin’s mother Judith, a very Coolidge role. Her mother’s love is ultimately what brings the film together, mooring Benjamin when he’s drowning in a sea of bad adaptations of his work; the film loves her back for it, treasuring the important role of a mother as well as allowing Judith to be her own particularly unique and stylish woman.
The recurring theme of the film is that, even if your art is bad, what matters is that it comes from the heart. What makes it important is that it came from the heart, and from a good and honest place. This is how I feel about Gentlemen Broncos. It’s not going to be winning any Oscars anytime soon, but in the way that we’ve come to love the idea of the wholesome, it’s the underlying religiously-informed wholesomeness that makes the film so special. As Judith says, “Remember who you are and what you stand for!”. Especially if you stand for cheesy sci-fi.
Image courtesy of SRP Austin Photography via Flickr