18% on Rotten Tomatoes. “Tedious and unfocused” says The Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Daily Mail calls it “mind-numbingly terrible”. The all-mighty arbiter of geek approval Ain’t It Cool News pronounced it a “miserable turd” and went so far as to call it “bully porn”, meaning it turns the audience into bullies who laugh at the pathetic characters. What inspired all this vitriol? Gentlemen Broncos, the third film from director/writer Jared Hess.
Hess caught everyone by surprise with his first film, Napoleon Dynamite. That movie was what they call “charmingly quirky” with its cast of well-meaning misfits. Loaded with catch phrases and memorable situations, Napoleon Dynamite was a huge hit. Hess followed it up with a studio picture, Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black. It grossed over $80 million, on top of Napoleon Dynamite’s $44 million, which normally means the director is on the fast track to directing Steve Carell and Will Ferrell movies. Hess chose to go back to his roots with another story of a small town teenager and the weird people in his life.
Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a 15 year old aspiring science fiction writer who meets the legendary author Dr. Richard Chevalier ( Jemaine Clement) at a writer’s camp. Chevalier, artistically bereft after a career of goofy sci fi novels, steals Benjamin’s story Yeast Lords and has it published to great acclaim. At the same time, Benjamin has his story optioned by local filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Hector Ramirez) and his producer Tabatha (Halley Feiffer). Much of the movie is devoted to three competing visions of Yeast Lords: Benjamin’s pure version, Chevalier’s plagiarized version and Donaho’s shot-on-VHS sub-Zardoz version.
To say Gentlemen Broncos was widely panned would be an understatement. It was trashed and shit upon to the point where the director was called a racist and homophobic Mormon (Hess is a member of the Latter Day Saints church). But here’s the thing: I loved the movie and everyone I know who’s seen it loves it too, even people who have no affection for cheesy science fiction of the type parodied by Yeast Lords.
I’m not going to argue Gentlemen Broncos is a masterpiece (it certainly has its share of problems) but it’s nowhere near the turd you’ve been led to believe. In fact, it has some terrific comedic performances and a socially anxious hero whom the introverted among us will find especially sympathetic. Granted, it does take the quirkiness of Napoleoon Dynamite and turns it up a notch, to the point where it can feel about as authentic as a scarf-wearing hipster in a V-neck American Apparel T-shirt drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon. However, I feel that same quirkiness, that intentional ineptitude, is more than an affectation. Hess tells stories about socially awkward people pursuing their dreams despite a lack of talent, attractiveness or social skills. The weird, quirky style of his films serves to instill in the audience the same awkwardness his characters feel. For someone with Social Anxiety or Asperger’s or who is just a weirdo, this is what the world feels like. A prime example is the character of Tabatha, the opportunistic girl Benjamin meets on the bus ride to The Cletus Festival. Her motivations are never clear: does she like Benjamin, or is she just taking advantage of his sweet nature? Does she really think Yeast Lords is good or is she just using it to further her ambitions with Lonnie Donaho? Her behavior is capricious and contradictory, causing us to be as confused as Benjamin. This isn’t spelled out in the film, Benjamin doesn’t have a wise-cracking best friend he can go to for relationship advice. He simply has to accept what happens and the audience experiences his anxiety as a result.
The most serious charge I’ve seen leveled at Gentlemen Broncos is that Jared Hess is ridiculing the misfits in his movies, that he wants the audience to take on the role of bully, laughing at the awkward and incompetent characters. Some reviewers have taken it a bit farther, linking Hess’ Mormon faith with his alleged dislike of these people and accusing him of racism and homophobia. I think this criticism speaks more to the reviewer’s own prejudices than any intentional ugliness on the part of the writer/director. I know it’s hip to hate Mormons because they oppose gay marriage but every one I’ve ever met in person has been incredibly, genuinely nice. They don’t hate gays or Mexicans or anyone else. They’re so famously nice that South Park did a whole episode on it (Watch it here). After listening to the commentary on the Broncos DVD it’s evident that Jared and Jerusha Hess have a lot of love for these people. But what about all those weird looking extras? It turns out that a lot of them are Hess’ relatives, including one with Down’s Syndrome. Are these famously nice Mormons so sneeringly mocking that they’d cast a relative with Down’s Syndrome just so that people could laugh at her? Or do they just want to share their good fortune to be making a movie with their extended family? And let’s not forget that Mormons are the subject of considerable prejudice and ridicule themselves, often from the same people who are so quick to accuse others of bigotry.
Hess has said repeatedly that he casts odd looking people in his movies for two reasons: It gives people who would normally never be in a movie a chance to have their moment in the spotlight, and he wants to show that people who aren’t good looking, who don’t have great social skills and who may not even be that good at what they do can still have dreams. I don’t think he ever even considered that people would think he’s mocking them.
Geek film website io9 asked Hess directly about these accusations and his response sounds genuine to me:
I’m just doing what I love and casting the people that I love and … it’s funny. I think especially when Napoleon came out for the first time many people were like, ‘Gosh this is condescending to rural America and their way of life; how dare he!’
And I don’t know if these people have ever really been, you know, the people that didn’t understand it, didn’t really understood the love.
It’s, for me, giving these smaller stories and characters that you normally wouldn’t see in film, giving them a chance to be heard. In this fight, they’ve got bizarre life goals. It’s still cool to be able to see them succeed in their own little sphere.
The quote is a bit garbled but what I think he meant to say is the people who complain about the characters have never actually been to these small towns in Idaho and Utah. Well, neither have I but I did spend several years in New Mexico, as well as the majority of my life in small towns on the East Coast. I can tell you from experience that people in the Rocky Mountain region most definitely dress like the cast of Gentlemen Broncos and Napoleon Dynamite. People really do wear mock turtlenecks, high-waisted jeans and wolf t-shirts.
As for the charges of being a bigot, apparently some reviewers think it’s ok to have ridiculous characters like Napoleon Dynamite, his brother Kip and Uncle Rico but when you have a Mexican like Pedro you’re being a racist if he has a funny accent. Do these reviewers actually know any Mexican people? Quite a few of them have heavy accents and as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with laughing at an accent. Didn’t we all laugh at Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau? And don’t forget Pedro was probably the noblest character in that movie, the one who aimed big and acheived his goal. In Gentlemen Broncos the funny accent is provided by Hector Ramirez as Lonnie Donaho. Is the Donaho character even supposed to be Mexican? Ramirez was great in Nacho Libre, I suspect he and Hess enjoyed working together and Hess thought he would be funny as Donaho. If you’ve seen any interviews with Ramirez he’s got a pretty thick accent, not too far from what he plays in movies. He’s not making fun of Mexicans, he’s just another goofy character in a Jared Hess movie.
The NJ.com post I linked above also accuses Hess of being homophobic. Again, it’s ok to have all kinds of ridiculous characters but if one is an exaggerated homosexual that’s somehow bigoted and hateful. But how come the charge is leveled at Hess but no one accuses Sam Rockwell of being a homophobe? He’s the one that played Brutus as an over the top flamer. But Rockwell is an indie favorite while Hess is one of those hate-filled Mormons so he gets tarred with the bigot brush. That sounds an awful lot like the kind of prejudiced thinking we’re supposed to all be against.
One final quote from the NJ.com review:
But if everything is ridiculous, why should we care about anything? And if Benjamin’s novel is so awful (and it is), and his mother’s dreams of becoming a designer are so absurd (and they are), then why should we root for either of them?
This, I believe, shows that the reviewer doesn’t get what’s at the heart of every Hess movie: people without great ability can have great dreams and achieve them. I also think it sheds light on why some people feel Hess is making fun of these people. You see, everyone believes they were unpopular in high school. When was the last time you’ve ever heard someone say they were one of the cool kids? I’ve seen interviews with gorgeous Hollywood starlets who sincerely believe they weren’t popular in school. Everyone is awkward in high school, everyone feels out of place. These are the people we saw in Pretty in Pink and Freaks and Geeks and (more recently) Kick Ass: the awkward but smart kids who grow up to be successful. But these aren’t the real outcasts. The real outcasts and losers don’t get their stories told. They don’t have romantic sub plots with Molly Ringwold because they don’t have the social skills to talk to a girl. These are the kids with hideous acne, thick glasses and frizzy hair. They have trouble communicating, they don’t fit in and even if there’s nothing outwardly wrong they just can’t relate to other kids. Napoleon Dynamite is one of these misfits: he compensates for his grotesque appearance by living in a fantasy world of Nessie, Ligers and the Bo staff. Benjamin is another total outcast: home schooled, a loving but embarrassing mom, writing science fiction stories is his life but he’s so shy he has to leave the room when Tabatha asks to read Yeast Lords. My point is that the false outcasts, the normal people with normal insecurities, think the Hess movies are about them. Of course they’re offended: they may have been unpopular but they weren’t frizzy haired mouth breathers, how dare Jared Hess make fun of them like that. But he’s not. He’s telling the story of the real misfits, and we — the misfits — don’t see anything wrong with that. One of my high school classmates looked exactly like Napoleon Dynamite, I recognized that and appreciated that Hess got it right. Benjamin isn’t the quiet kid in a fiction writing class, he’s the weird kid hiding in the library reading Asimov and drawing space battles in his notebook (oh wait, that was me). Hess is telling the story of the kid everyone else ignores, not the goofy kid who tries to get the popular girl to go to the prom.
If you haven’t seen Gentlemen Broncos, I suggest you ignore the bad reviews and give it a fair shake. It may not be as funny as Napoleon Dynamite or as polished as Nacho Libre but I think it has a bigger heart and a more likable hero in Benjamin, the shy outcast who has ambitions that the cool kids don’t think are worth pursuing.