Thursday 29 September 2016

In Defence of a Movie About Writers

Gentlemen Broncos is a film that bombed. 

So why have I watched Gentlemen Broncos so many times? Well. It's short, mainly, and it's one of the few comedies I have, and I quite like it, so people go, “got anything light to watch” and I go, “well, there's this.” So we end up watching it.

Every review I saw of this film, which came out in 2009 maybe, had one star. No one critical liked it. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it 19%, which is abysmal. It was made by Jared and Jerusha Hess, who did Napoleon Dynamite, and Nacho Libre, which are pretty divisive movies. I appreciated what both films were doing, and I recognise that they've got a little more depth than a lot of people think they do, but there also profound problems with both, and I confess that I'm not a big fan of either. It shares a couple of cast members with Napoleon Dynamite, and has I suppose a bit of the off-kilter naff Americana thing going on, a working-class equivalent to the (mostly) affluent protagonists of Wes Anderson.

A fifteen-year-old called Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) writes sci-fi novels about a space hero called Bronco, who is, it is established earlier on, almost exactly like Benjamin's late Dad. His mum wants to be a fashion designer, except she's pretty devout (they never say, but she's obviously Latter-Day Saints) and her stuff is a bit rubbish.

He goes to a writer's camp where the guest of honour is an old-skool sci-fi writer called Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, who gives the best performance of the movie). There's this competition for young writers, and Chevalier's the judge.

But Chevalier's a massive diva, and he hasn't written anything good in ages (“OK,” he says to his agent on the phone, “Moon-Foetus. A foetus. On the moon...”)

Chevalier reads Benjamin's book and finds something in it – an energy, a degree of heart – and steals it, changing the names and some of the trappings, and, inevitably, rips the heart out of it. Meanwhile, a couple of weird kids in Benjamin's home town make a crappy film of Benjamin's book and wreck it.

There's this conceit as Gentlemen Broncos goes on where every so often you see the story of Bronco, last of the Yeast Lords, unfold before you in little scenes, as imagined by Benjamin, Chevalier, or the incompetent wannabe film-makers. And those bits are actually quite hilarious – neither Benjamin's version (the hero is wild and grizly and owns a wildcat, the heroine has a huge chest) nor Chevalier's version (camp hero, heroine tasteful and restrained, hero owns a wolf) is really that good, but Benjamin's has an urgency and bite to it, and actually looks like a lot more fun.

Chevalier's problem, you see, is that he started out as a boy of Benjamin's age who wrote these breathless, trashy stories, and at some point turned into the sort of man who holds seminars about the how you should always put a suffix after a character's name in a science fiction novel and tells young girls that you can't call a troll Teacup and waxes lyrical about how We Only Do It For The Money.

The film's not so well-paced, has painfully sustained gags about pythons with diarrhoea and having your first kiss just after you threw up, and you keep dying for the bits with the film-makers or Benjamin's mum to just. end. so you can return to Ronald Chevalier talking nonsense (think a sci-fi Garth Marenghi) or watching Sam Rockwell nail two versions of Bronco. Michael Angarano is good too, giving one of those performances where you see the world gradually descend on his shoulders, and when it ends, and the misery lifts, it's quite uplifting.

I think I like it because of the things it says about creativity and writing. About the terror of losing your dreams to despair or theft, because your dreams are, even if they're not the greatest dreams, formative to you.

And Jemaine Clement is pretty funny.