After making a sparkling debut in 2004 with his first feature film the slacker comedy Napoleon Dynamite offbeat writer-director Jared Hess seemed poised for a fruitful career as an earnest more accessible alternative to hipster auteur Wes Anderson. But he stumbled a bit with his sophomore effort the uneven Mexican wrestling flick Nacho Libre despite Jack Black’s desperate mugging for laughs. And he falls apart completely with his latest comedy the crude maddeningly insipid Gentlemen Broncos.
It’s a shame too because Gentlemen Broncos held so much potential. Its trailers promised a lively battle of wits between a pompous sci-fi author played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and the teenage protege (Michael Angarano) from whom he plagiarized his latest bestselling novel. It could have been Hess’s Rushmore. But what the trailers don’t tell you is that Clement plays merely a supporting role in Gentlemen Broncos and that his character Dr. Ronald Chevalier virtually disappears after the film’s splendid setup. Clement is by far the best part of the film and when he isn’t on the screen the story devolves into an increasingly irksome blend of manufactured quirk and lame sight gags. Hess’s sense of humor has regressed to sub-adolescent levels with Gentlemen Broncos. Defecating snakes breast-puncturing blowdarts and jars of human testicles are just a few of the lowbrow delights that await the brave soul who attempts to make it through a viewing. When Clement returns at the end of the film and mounts a quixotic attempt to rescue it from the mire his heroic effort is sadly for naught: The disastrous fate of Gentleman Broncos was sealed long before.
Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank) doesn’t know how lucky she has it. She’s smart beautiful and married to Gerry (Gerald Butler) a passionate funny and impetuous Irishman who loves her with every breath in his body. But when that breath runs out--Gerry dies unexpectedly from an illness--Holly’s luck runs out. Barely coping her salvation arrives in the form of letters from Gerry that come to Holly in unexpected ways--letters he wrote to her before he died to help her get through the pain and move on with her life and letters that always end with “P.S. I Love You.” A saint huh? Holly’s mother (Kathy Bates) and best friends Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) begin to worry Gerry’s letters are keeping Holly tied to the past but in fact each letter pushes Holly on a journey of rediscovery and to show her how a love so strong can turn the finality of death into new beginning for life. Tissues please! Swank will be damned if she pigeonholes herself into always playing serious women who don’t wear makeup. P.S. I Love You is her stab at romantic dramedy and while the genre may not suit her best the Oscar-winning actress still has fun playing a spirited woman who wears designer clothes cute hats and gets to make out with a strapping Irish hunk. Actually Swank gets to bed TWO strapping Irish hunks in P.S. I Love You: The first is the yummy Butler of course and the other is Gerry’s old bandmate William played by American Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who’ll be seen in the upcoming romantic comedy The Accidental Husband with Uma Thurman). Lucky girl. Butler however is the one the ladies will sigh over the most. Having already given a powerhouse performance this year as the Spartan king in 300 the Scottish actor turns the tables to show his soft underbelly as the adorably romantic and fun-lovin’ Gerry. The abs still rock though. One can easily see why Holly is such a mess after he dies. Gershon and Kudrow add some genuineness as Holly’s friends (someone please find a Kudrow a TV show) as does Bates as Holly’s hardened mother. Harry Connick Jr. however seems out of place as Holly’s would-be suitor. She just needs to stick with the Irish guys. Hilary Swank teams up with her Freedom Writers director Richard LaGravenese once again for P.S. I Love You and it’s clear they have a symbiotic relationship. Swank probably likes the way LaGravenese accentuates her best features turning her into a glam leading lady while LaGravenese obviously enjoys gazing at her through his camera lens. Unfortunately the two really haven’t found the best material. Freedom Writers is the mother of all teacher-gets-students-motivated retreads while P.S. I Love You--based on a novel by Cecelia Ahern and adapted by LaGravenese and Steven Rogers--is just pure fluff with very little substance behind it. Not that the film won't inspire some romantic feelings or work up tears but its only real strengths are: 1) the players who somehow rise about the triteness of it all especially Butler and 2) the gorgeous landscapes of Ireland which should send any woman in her right mind straight to the Emerald Isles to find her perfect man. Seriously ladies book your trips NOW.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
We are first introduced to our bushy-haired redhead friend Napoleon (Jon Heder) in a vintage unicorn T-shirt dangling a superhero action figure out the window of his school bus. When his much younger friend asks "What are you going to do today Napoleon?" our protagonist's first words are marked with an attitude that is unmatched by anybody other than Napoleon himself "Whatever I feel like!" Napoleon and his chat room surfing brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) 31 with braces live with their biker grandma (Sandy Martin) until she's injured quad running at the dunes and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to babysit. Dynamite becomes the campaign manager for the class presidency of his best friend a new Mexican student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) handing out key chains made by expert friendship bracelet-maker Deb (Tina Majorino). Dynamite also wins over the likes of Trisha (Emily Kennard) with a personal drawing of her that took forever he winsomely says "to finish the shading on her upper lip"; wears a vintage suit to his school dance; and injures his scrotum with a time machine purchased on the Internet. If this proud geek wasn't being kicked during class and pushed into lockers after he could just as easily be considered the coolest dork in town.
Jon Heder masters the coolness of weird and the awkwardness of youth through his social reject Napoleon Dynamite. Heder certainly has the open-mouthed squinty-eyed spectacle-clad doofus down to a T. From breaking an excessive sweat after practicing dance moves in his room to throwing fruit at his Uncle Rico to showing a pent-up rage while dancing for Pedro's candidacy speech Heder does every little thing with a resentful anger that makes his performance unforgettable and oh so laughable. As dazzling as he is alone Heder's act benefits when complemented by his equally outrageous costars. Ruell does a notable job portraying the fragility of his character Kip perfectly displaying the transition from computer geek to ghetto superstar thanks to new girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery). Gries is Uncle Rico--his constant nostalgic comments about his chance to "make State" in high school football in 1982 really start to get on your nerves. But Majorino takes the cake for the hilarity with which she depicts her character down to her hairstyles outfits jobs and hobbies. Her character Deb is eerily reminiscent of Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) from 1995's dork homage Welcome to the Dollhouse. One of the most attractive things about the movie is the organic love story that unfolds as Napoleon and Deb realize that they're in fact two peas in a pod.
Jared Hess directs Dynamite written by him and wife Jerusha. This movie is his baby as his only other directing and production credits include Peluca 2003's 9-minute short film focused on the character of Napoleon Dynamite then dubbed Seth. Without special effects or an expensive budget Dynamite will blow you away with its simple cinematography paralleled by the plain rural town in which the movie is set. Each of his characters has a specific quirky personality that they stay true to every minute on camera. Dynamite's Deb seems to look to Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn for fashion and boy advice. The two films are geek anthems that are both pathetic and inspiring at the same time. Just as Dollhouse reached its peak with a fuming Dawn marching over to her male obsession and releasing her rage over years of being unaccepted Dynamite reaches a whole new peak with the curiously angry Napoleon putting on an emotional dance performance in front of his victim of choice--the entire student body class.