Jared Hess' peculiar specialty as a filmmaker is understandably rare. Hess is the laureate of the American Outback, capturing perfectly the awful desperation of life in small-time, small-town nowhere — the sunny monotony, the cramped aspirations, the eternal lack of action. In his first feature, the 2004 "Napoleon Dynamite," this anesthetized milieu was a resonant backdrop for the deadpan absurdity of the story and the fresh eccentricity of its star, Jon Heder. But in Hess' new film, the even wispier "Gentlemen Broncos," the backdrop swallows up the generally low-voltage characters and takes over the picture. The result is oddly oppressive, and anyone who's ever managed to escape from a stultifying childhood backwater may feel, in watching it, an attack of anxiety hives coming on.
The movie's nominal protagonist is Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), an introverted teen doing time in the Utah sticks. Benjamin's life is a non-whirl of home schooling and regular churchgoing with his widowed mom (Jennifer Coolidge). (That this sort of über-wholesomeness is not disdained by the director and his co-writer wife, Jerusha Hess, has previously been part of their conceptual charm.)
Benjamin is a science-fiction fan and an aspiring sci-fi writer who's recently completed a book, called "Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years." At an annual camp gathering for young writers, he brings his manuscript to the attention of a fellow home-schooler named Tabatha (the lively Halley Feiffer), another aspiring scribe, who writes French-flavored mystery stories about a ranch-hand named Pierre. Tabatha in turn takes Benjamin's tome to her pal Lonnie (toothy Héctor Jiménez), whose own aspirations incline toward filmmaking. Together, Tabatha and Lonnie decide to turn "Yeast Lords" into an amateur sci-fi epic.
But Benjamin also submits his manuscript to the camp's guest lecturer, renowned fantasy author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). As famous as he is, Chevalier is also in professional trouble — his publisher has rejected his latest work and is threatening to drop him from the company's roster. So when he reads through Benjamin's book and likes it, he decides to steal the story and claim it, with slight revisions, as his own.
Clement, best known as the extrovert half of the fake folk comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, is the movie's real star. His Chevalier — all elaborate hair, sonorous purr and oily insincerity — is a monument of intensely concentrated smarm. (Addressing an assembly of the camp's young writers, he says, "It's such an honor to be in the midst of so many juvenescent, ripe minds.") He's a shameless poseur and talent vampire, and if he weren't so funny in every scene he enters, he'd be a lot of fun to just sit back and hiss at.
The invaluable Sam Rockwell also puts in several appearances in fantasy sequences drawn from Benjamin's "Yeast Lords." These interludes are awfully strained, although their action scenes, involving many Cyclops warriors and "surveillance deer," have an authentic low-budget tang.
But Angarano's character is such a bland mope that whenever Clement's not around, the movie slumps into claustrophobic lassitude. The picture itself aspires to be a light, quirky take on youthful hopes and dreams. But it's so light that it drifts away into the ether. By the end, you feel as if you've spent 90 minutes stuck in the sticks.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day," also new in theaters this week.
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