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August 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

cast: Michael Angarano, Jennifer Coolidge, Halley Feiffer, H�ctor Jim�nez, and Sam Rockwell

director: Jared Hess

85 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
review by Ian Sales

Gentlemen Broncos

Science fiction fans are an easy target. They're all nerds; they wear anoraks. They have no friends. They obsess over trivia about made-up worlds. And science fiction writers are worse. They're responsible for making up the worlds in the first place. They actively encourage these sad losers, and they provide them with the material with which they populate their sad obsessions. At least, that's what Gentlemen Broncos would have you believe. It is, apparently, a comedy.

Yet it all started so well. The opening credit sequence of Gentlemen Broncos consists of a series SF paperbacks... with the names of cast and crew replacing titles and authors' names. Pace SF fans being sad nerds, I recognised at least one - the cover art for Edmund Cooper's Who Needs Men? (aka: Gender Genocide) from 1974. Unfortunately, that's about as close to real science fiction as this film gets.

Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is a SF fan and wannabe writer. He's written a novella titled 'Yeast Lords', which he hopes to have published. So he attends the Cletus Fest, a writing festival. En route in the bus provided by the summer school, he is befriended by Tabatha (Helley Feiffer), and Lonnie Donaho (H�ctor Jim�nez). Tabatha writes mysteries set in France, and Lonnie directs films. At the festival, the special guest of honour is introduced, famous SF writer Dr Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement of the Flying Conchords). A competition is also announced, with the first prize as publication by Chevalier's publishers.

Benjamin submits 'Yeast Lords' to the competition. However, Chevalier is suffering from writer's block, and is sufficiently impressed with 'Yeast Lords' to rip it off and submit it to his impatient publisher as his own work. Benjamin subsequently finds out and is far from happy. Also, he sells the film rights to 'Yeast Lords' to Tabatha and Lonnie, and the (amateur) film they make of the book bears no resemblance to Benjamin's book. Again, he is far from happy.

Neither scenario is especially implausible, and is certainly food for comedy. However, the filmmakers - who were also responsible for Napoleon Dynamite - have chosen to also mock science fiction. But they've done this by, well, by getting it completely wrong, by pandering to some clich�d vision of how the public thought science fiction was back in the 1960s and 1970s. But Gentlemen Broncos is not set 40 years ago, despite a soundtrack which suggests as much: Zager & Evans over the opening credits, Scorpions, Kansas, Cher, and Black Sabbath played during the film. Gentlemen Broncos is set now - there's mention of publishing online, for example.

But, as for the science fiction here... Throughout the film there are dramatised sections of 'Yeast Lords' - both Benjamin's original and Chevalier's plagiarised version. In this book, Bronco (Sam Rockwell, who is a SF fan and should know better) is a savage in a future wasteland, captured by a scientist who needs his sperm to seed a new race of warriors. "You stole my 'nads!" he protests. Bronco, renamed Brutus in Chevalier's version, escapes and goes on a quest to defeat the scientists, or something... 'Yeast Lords' is mildly amusing, with its flying, missile-armed 'battle stags' and 'surveillance does'; although Chevalier's version, with its 1970s' camp disco aesthetic, is less funny.

The comedy of Benjamin's struggle to get recognition for his work, however, misfires pretty much all the time. Gentlemen Broncos is intended to be funny, but its humour lies in poking fun at a something which doesn't even exist. Science fiction is nothing like as depicted in the film, neither as a genre nor as an industry. It never was like it, except perhaps in bad comedy sketch-shows during the days when Benny Hill was popular.

Chevalier is a pompous ass - and there may well be popular SF authors in the 21st century who are pompous asses - but he speaks so much 'new age-y' twaddle about his books; it's as if he fell out of some other genre. Even the details on publishing are nonsense. Ignoring the fact that Chevalier's book is published suspiciously quickly, there are other problems. For example, Benjamin first learns of Chevalier's plagiarism when he sees a point-of-sale display of the mass-market paperback edition in a local bookshop.

If he was a fan of the writer, as is claimed, he'd have known about the novel's publication long before it appeared in shops. In a later scene, Benjamin beards Chevalier at a signing session. The books on sale there are the hardback edition. No book is sold in both mass-market paperback and hardback at the same time. Benjamin is also told he should have registered 'Yeast Lords' with the Writers League. No such organisation exists. In the US, a work can be registered with the Copyright Office, but it is not a requirement.

The really sad thing about Gentlemen Broncos is that it's a well-made and well-played movie. A little research, a little care, and a desire not to generate humour by treating its characters as if they were deluded retards, and it might have been a funny movie. Perhaps it should have been set 40 years ago - perhaps it should have been made 40 years ago; perhaps then it might have got away with it. Right now, in the 21st century, in a media landscape dominated by widescreen science fiction, Gentlemen Broncos just appears risible and ill-conceived.



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