New Yorker's Richard Brody is rare among film critics in finding things to praise about GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, the third film from Mormon film maker Jared Hess (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, NACHO LIBRE).
One of the most audacious American movies of 2009, Jared Hess’s “Gentlemen Broncos” (on DVD from Fox) — a loopy comedy that blends frumpy down-market vulgarity with excremental humor and cartoonish, yet astonishingly simple and clever, action sequences — is hardly the type to attract Oscar consideration. Yet it’s a work of visionary inspiration that, like many outrageous Hollywood comedies of the classic era (such as those of Frank Tashlin), tackles remarkably serious matters.
The story of the home-schooled teen-ager Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), the only child of a poor widow (Jennifer Coolidge) in a pious Christian community in Saltair, Utah, is rife with religious overtones. An aspiring science-fiction writer, Benjamin goes to a teen-writers’ conference, where he meets his idol, the fantasy novelist Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), to whom he shows a manuscript, which Chevalier soon appropriates, transforms, and passes off as his own. Meanwhile, two other kids in the program, Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez) and Tabitha (Halley Feiffer), buy the story from Benjamin under false pretenses and turn it into a smarmy home video; the young writer—with the help of his so-called guardian angel, Dusty (Mike White)—fights to reclaim and restore his novel.
Hess, a Brigham Young graduate who has worked in the Mormon film industry, daringly sets Benjamin’s naïve yet heroic visions in three sets of images—the gaudy, lubricious ones that Chevalier imagines; Lonnie’s travesty; and, most astonishingly, the fierce yet devout ones that Benjamin sees in his mind’s eye. Set in a future outer-space post-apocalyptic desert, his tale, “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years,” blends whiz-bang weaponry with Rocky Mountain fauna and an adolescent obsession with reproductive organs and bodily fluids. Its hero resembles Benjamin’s late father, as well as the poster-size portrait of the long-haired, bearded Jesus that hangs in the family’s living room. The struggle against a diabolical intergalactic warlord involves physical degradation, projectile vomiting, and other grotesque bodily functions. In his jejune yet highly moral inspiration, Benjamin is the prophet of a pop-infused Gospel, an updated Book of Mormon, that speaks to a new generation of young people whose coarsened sensibility is paradoxically attuned to Biblical explicitness and ferocity. Hess’s vision is both childish and childlike, yet from the mouths of babes oft comes wisdom—as well as things that need to be wiped up.
Brody noted the spiritual concerns of BRONCOS last fall, at The New Yorker's film blog The Front Row
"Point by point, Manohla Dargis’s review of Jared Hess’s Gentlemen Broncos (2009) misses what’s going on. She and I were among the few writers who praised Hess’s previous film, Nacho Libre (2006). . . . She saw the film almost exclusively in terms of gender politics, praising its 'liberating vision of identity as a performance space, an existential wrestling ring, if you will, in which each of us, if only given the opportunity, can cavort freely in the mask and colored tights of our choosing.' Fine, but not a word about religion. . . ."
Where Dargas sees only "a gross-out comedy," Brody calls Gentlemen Broncos "a strange and personal religious vision," its central character "the author of a new gospel," and director Hess’s filming of his visions "wondrously ingenuous, . . . both as sublime and as crudely carnal as scripture itself."
He goes on to connect the writer-director of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) with another auteur whose work finds the sacred in the profane. "The grotesque bodily functions, human, animal, and alien, that the movie depicts unflinchingly—as well as the “unpleasant, unattractive characters” Dargis says the film is filled with—are the point. It’s easy to present the beautiful people and the scrubbed world as divine creations; Hess’s vision sacralizes what other filmmakers don’t. The director he’s closest to in this regard is Pier Paolo Pasolini (and Pasolini, too, had an extraordinary sense of the naïve, the repellent, and the ridiculous)."
It strikes me that a less lofty point of comparison might be Kevin Smith (CLERKS, whose sensibility similarly pairs an eternally adolescent preoccupation with crudity and a not-so-crude preoccupation with eternity - Smith a Catholic, Hess a Latter Day Saint.
In case Brody sets Soul Food expectations too high, here's the prevailing critical opinion, represented by EW's Lisa Schwartzbaum: "As they did in Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, the Hesses claim to celebrate the amusing qualities of misshapen people and their misshapen dreams, insisting that amateurism and bad taste (both in filmmaking and in life) are intentional artistic choices. The audience may have bought the act in Napoleon Dynamite. But this time, the act bombs.The one saving grace of such a relentlessly unappealing movie may be that the emperor's-new-clothes moment has arrived: Bad taste is sometimes just a vice, and amateurism in filmmaking is no virtue."
All three Hess films available at Videomatica