"SOMEBODY HAD STOLEN his yeast, and he had gone totally apeshit," reads one of the opening lines in Yeast Lords, an epic sci-fi novel by teenager Benjamin Purvis. Benjamin (Michael Angarano) is a nerdy kid who lives with his mom (Jennifer Coolidge) in a geodesic dome somewhere in semi-rural Utah; as his mom sews tacky gowns out of beach towels and burlap and eats popcorn like it's cold cereal, Benjamin retreats to his hand-written sci-fi stories about a hero named Bronco who gets his gonads stolen by mad scientists and rides rocket-powered robot deer called "battle stags." (In the fairly amazing sequences when we get to see Yeast Lords enacted, Bronco is played by the great Sam Rockwell; nobody can shout "You took my 'nads!" quite like him.)
When Benjamin attends a teen writers' camp called Cletus Fest, he gets to meet his hero: sci-fi author Ronald Chevalier (played by Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement). Chevalier is the creator of pulp tales like Brain Cream, Troll Hole, and the Cyborg Harpies trilogy; worshipped by legions of nerds, the sanctimonious, arrogant author wears a Bluetooth headset that he never uses and berates little girls for giving the trolls in their stories names like "Teacup." Chevalier's a has-been hack, but moreover, he's just a dick—and watching Clement giddily play him isn't only the highlight of Gentlemen Broncos, but it marks one of the best and funniest performances of the year.
But back to the plot: Benjamin hands over his handwritten, three-ring-binder copy of Yeast Lords; Chevalier, facing a string of rejected manuscripts from his publisher, steals it and publishes it, much to Benjamin's dismay. "All you did was change the characters' names and turn Bronco into a tranny!" Benjamin later shouts at Chevalier, confronting him in front of his fans at a reading.
There's some other stuff, too: Benjamin's mom signs him up for a Big Brother program, so the poor kid's often accompanied by the creepy Dusty (Mike White); a local film director (Héctor Jiménez) crudely adapts Benjamin's story into a terrible homemade movie (which also stars Dusty); Benjamin gets a crush on (and gets taken advantage of by) another wannabe writer, Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), who writes stories that feature horses with names like "Paris France." Sometimes it feels all over the map, but more than anything else, Gentlemen Broncos is a backhanded sort of tribute to nerds: As in their previous films, Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, the married creative team of Jared Hess (writer/director) and Jerusha Hess (writer) constantly teeters on the edge of sympathizing with and mocking their characters. Sometimes you feel for Benjamin (and even, at times, Chevalier), but when it comes to Dusty, Benjamin's mother, and other side characters, Gentlemen Broncos can devolve into a sardonic freakshow. We're never quite sure whether to love or mock the Hess' characters, most likely because they don't know which to do, either.
Gentlemen Broncos is riding a wave of astonishingly toxic buzz sprinkled with the occasional vicious review; until a few days ago, it wasn't even slated to open in more than a handful of cities. Watching this uneven, bizarre film, it's easy to see why distributor Fox Searchlight didn't know what the hell to do with it—it's a movie filled with outcasts and weirdos, a good portion of it is spent in psychedelic, lo-fi science-fiction sequences, and major plot points concern both testicles and homemade nightgowns. And there's more—most notably, all the discomfiting, barely veiled sexual imagery that permeates the film, as well as a fair amount of vomit and a notable scene involving a snake's explosive diarrhea. Despite everything it does right, Gentlemen Broncos isn't exactly an easy sell.
But it does do things right, and plenty of them: there is, obviously, Clement's astounding performance, but Angarano is great too; there are some pretty fantastic uses of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" and the Scorpions' "Wind of Change"; the opening credits, set to Zager and Evans' "In the Year 2525," pay homage to the ridiculousness of pulp sci-fi in a way that can only be equaled by spending four or five hours in the yellow room at Powell's. Gentlemen Broncos is frequently awkward, both intentionally and unintentionally, but it's consistently funny and entertaining and original—when it's on, it not only works as a comedy, but as a tribute to the freaks inside each of us, and the weird little passions that keep us going.