TERRY GROSS, host:
Forty-year-old, six-foot-five-inch, Utah-born-and-raised Jared Hess had a cult smash hit with the 2004 comedy �Napoleon Dynamite,� in which a tall, gawky Utah nerd finds love and does a funky dance. Hess's new comedy, which he co-wrote with his wife Jerusha, is called �Gentlemen Broncos.� The movie opened in limited release last Friday to wildly mixed reviews, and our film critic David Edelstein wants to make the case for it.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: I don't think there's ever been a comedy as freakishly, surreally psychosexual as Jared Hess's �Gentlemen Broncos.� It's the story of a teenager who writes unpublished �Dune�-like sci-fi novels, called �Yeast Wars,� in which the hero has his gonads stolen and faces off in a rocky desert against laser-blasting mammaries. The kid, Benjamin, played by Michael Angarano, is clearly sublimating like mad to relieve his sexual discomfort. But often Hess cuts to his fantasies � scenes from his novels enacted onscreen � and they're so visionary and intense that they hurtle past Freud. They have a Jung-like mythical dimension.
His protagonist, Bronco, played by Sam Rockwell, is part cowboy, part Flash Gordon. His battles are gloriously tacky and psychedelic. He rides robotic deer and dodges Cyclops and pursues a jelly jar with his pilfered private parts. These fantasies lift the movie into a realm both lofty and madcap. The down-to-earth realm is loco in a different way. Hess co-wrote and directed �Napoleon Dynamite� and the Mexican wrestler comedy with Jack Black, �Nacho Libre,� and at times he uses deadpan like a cudgel.
Geeky characters stare offscreen with their mouths hanging open. They're uncomfortable in their own flesh. Benjamin is home-schooled and awkward around people. He moves through the world on the verge of tears, looking as if he wants to will his own body out of existence. I've never seen a teen hero so stricken. His mom is the wonderful actress Jennifer Coolidge, who's comically full-figured yet playing a character trying to become a designer with a line of ultra-modest nightgowns � while Benjamin's own work explodes with sex and violence.
When Benjamin leaves his dome house to travel to a convention of young, would-be fantasy writers, he gets to meet his author-hero, Dr. Ronald Chevalier, played by Jemaine Clement of �Flight of the Conchords.� Even if you love Jemaine on TV, you'll be unprepared for his brilliance here. He wears a dark, heavy beard and speaks in the toasty tones of James Mason's Captain Nemo. He gives a lecture in how to name one's characters, then calls on Benjamin, who's bewildered by his role model's fatuous pomposity.
(Soundbite of movie, �Gentlemen Broncos�)
Mr. JEMAINE CLEMENT (Actor): (As Dr. Ronald Chevalier): Need thou not be afraid for we can turn a humdrum, forgettable name like Nebuchadnezzar, into something magical this: Nebuchoronius(ph) and it's that easy. We can add -onius, -ainous, -anous to just about anything and it becomes magical. You, give me the name of one of your central protags.
Mr. MICHAEL ANGARANO (Actor): (As Benjamin): Bronco.
Mr. CLEMENT: (As Dr. Ronald Chevalier): What is he? A centaur?
Mr. ANGARANO: (As Benjamin): No.
Mr. CLEMENT: (As Dr. Ronald Chevalier): Does he shape-shift into equine form ever?
Mr. ANGARANO: (As Benjamin): No, he's just a man.
Mr. CLEMENT: (As Dr. Ronald Chevalier): Well then, I would lose the C immediately and replace it with an L - Bronlonius.
EDELSTEIN: �Gentlemen Broncos� finally turns on the theft of Benjamin's work. Chevalier steals his manuscript � inserting, of course, his own ridiculous character names and turning Bronco into a transvestite. We see scenes from his �Yeast Wars� acted onscreen, and they're even more bizarre than Benjamin's. Then a girl named Tabitha, played by a hilariously deadpan Halley Feifer, pays Benjamin to use �Yeast Wars� as the basis for a threadbare, soft-core bodice-ripper movie directed by her friend Lonnie, played by Hector Jimenez, whose mouth is a rictus of lust.
Nutty and campy as all this is, there's a serious theme. Vastly disparate sexual issues are being worked out through these outlandish fantasies. Each vision is different. And in the end, Benjamin has to stand up like any artist and fight for his own vision. Some of Hess's gross-out gags are heavy-handed. The grotesquery is laid on too thick. His work is best when he doesn't force it, when he lets you observe, casually, his menagerie of weirdos. But �Gentlemen Broncos� is a leap over his previous work.
Now, Hess doesn't just gaze on paralyzed nerds from the outside. He takes you into their heads and gives form to their alienation from the physical world. Hess is a Mormon from a famously modest culture, yet he's clearly inspired by David Lynch. Even his flattest images teem with creepy undercurrents. I was always on the verge of either laughing or squirming, sometimes both at once. Let's call that verge Hess Country, where even your tackiest dreams can take flight.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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