We recently watched Jared & Jerusha Hess' latest film, the incredibly weird Gentlemen Broncos. It's weird. Like really, really, really weird. It was sort of smothered in its sleep by Fox Searchlight who opened it for one week in a limited number of theaters in a limited number of cities. Its theatrical run made roughly 1% of what the film itself cost to make. Critics, who were already pretty split on Hess' merits as a film-maker, were less than kind to it. Having seen the film, I can say that this is totally understandable. Broncos is (as I said) weird, messy, cynical, unlikable, uneven and not terribly funny.
It's also one of the more interesting films about creativity that I've seen.
Creativity's a gamble. When you create something, at least in the beginning, you do it because you have to. Like Athena bursting out of Zeus' head, sometimes you just gotta get this stuff out of your brain and onto a page or a computer screen or a brick wall or a reel of film or whatever. Once it leaves your head, it becomes open for everyone who encounters it to enjoy, dissect, criticize, steal, discredit or profit from it. Sonic Youth quoted Los Angeles musician Jack Brewer in the Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star liner notes as saying, of music, that "Once [it] leaves your head, it's already compromised." Broncos, in my estimation, is about just this: what happens when the things you create become real? What if it's stolen? Misrepresented? What would you do to make your vision a reality? What happens when the ideas that once came so effortlessly (Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement's character, Dr. Ronald Chevalier, boasts to an auditorium of aspiring writers – including our "hero" Benjamin – that he painted something like 45 covers for his first novel) won't come any more?
Heady stuff from a guy who made his name off of a squinty-eyed Idaho kid in armpit-high jeans and moon boots, right? So you can see why people expecting Napoleon Dynamite 2.0 – or, as the previews painted it, a sort of low-rent Rushmore in stone-washed denim, maroon turtlenecks and corduroy vests – would be disappointed with something this … "mature" isn't the right word, but it's something like that. While it's not as insightful or well-constructed as, say, the Coen brothers' ode to writers block in Barton Fink, or Christopher Guests middle-finger to the Hollywood machine in For Your Consideration, or Robert Altman's cutting thriller, The Player; Broncos is definitely mining the same territory. The film's central message seems to be that creativity is a messy business and ideas are tricky and nobody is your friend.
Where Napoleon and Nacho Libre were fluffy, scatter-brained comedies about lovable losers overcoming the odds, Broncos is full of, well, just losers. And while there are some laughs, its comedy is dark and its central message bleak. Benjamin's clueless mother, played with characteristic aplomb by Guest alumni Jennifer Coolidge, smothers her son while making him popcorn-ball treats and having him help sell consigned (and hideous) evening gowns at the local swap meet to try and make ends meet. Halley Feiffer's Tabatha plays what you would think is the love interest, but ends up being a manipulative opportunist who gloms onto anyone who she thinks can help her out. Hector Jimenez's Lonnie is a condescending prick whose gigantic ego is matched only by his complete lack of talent. Mike White's a Guardian Angel volunteer (think Big Brother/Big Sister) who only wants to get in Ben's mom's mom-jeans and/or be a famous actor; whichever. And Ben? Ben just sort of flows along with it all with dopey, sad-eyed nonchalance until he can't anymore. Fair-weather friends, big talkers, users, phonies, opportunists, manipulators; these are the grotesques Hess introduces us to and while it's not pretty, it a fair representation of humanity.
Then there's the fictional characters. Sam Rockwell, playing dual roles, is both a joy and a huge problem for the film. Rockwell first appears as Bronco, last of the Yeast Lords and the hero of Ben's stories and an obvious stand-in for Ben's dead game warden father. He later pops up as Brutus, a lisping dandy in the ripped-off Chevalier version of Ben's story. And don't get me wrong, Rockwell's a hoot to watch both as the burly Bronco and the prissy Brutus, but his performances ultimately kick the legs out from under an already precariously-balanced film. By Rockwell playing both parts so broadly, it undermines our commitment to Ben as a writer able to craft a story that anyone would read and publish, let alone rip off and, uh, publish. True, if he'd played it straighter, the film would not have been as funny, but it might have sold the film as a whole a lot better. Still, he's pretty hilarious as he chews through both roles, so what do you do? If you're Jared Hess and this is your first real shot at the Big Leagues, do you tell one of your stars, who's probably working on scale and could be doing other, more lucrative stuff, to pull it back a little? And if you know you're pushing your audience's patience by having your third film be such a radical, strange and dark departure from the lightweight, cartoony stuff you've done before, do you pull out the bits of your film that most closely resemble those films? Or do you leave them in even if it means your film's a little uneven?
If I were a betting man, I'd say that the Hess' next film (if there will be such a thing, given just how much money Broncos lost) will be a lot more in keeping with the Napoleon/Nacho rubric than something like Gentlemen Broncos and while I'd gladly watch such a film, I think it would be a shame. I'd like to see what the Hess' can do when they're not expected to be hilarious like all of the time. I'm not asking for something über-serious, but with Hess' comedic timing, eye for the offbeat and love for losers, I would welcome a slightly more mature film.
And if they can somehow incorporate python diarrhea into it, all the better.