If you can’t laugh at yourself, the saying goes, who can you laugh at? Writer-director Jared Hess has an answer: other people, preferably ones that are even more cretinous, clueless and clammy-palmed than yourself. It’s unfair to blame Hess solely for condescension comedy’s bad aftertaste—he’s not the only perpetrator—but his particular brand is the most graceless. Napoleon Dynamite squeezed a few laughs and a cult following out of endless eye-rolling, mouth-breathing and past-sale-date pop references (Trapper Keepers!); Nacho Libre was simply another cruel one-note joke masquerading as a pumped-up Jack Black vehicle.
The modus operandi for his latest remains the same. Find an easy target for ridicule, like Benjamin (Angarano), a socially awkward misfit who obsesses over sub-Heinlein sci-fi pulp. Surround him with arrogant pricks such as Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Clement), “esteemed” author and bubonic plagiarist, and truly pathetic creatures, like Benjamin’s snake-handling stoner guardian (White). Give your characters a tacky Middle American fashion sense, cruddy haircuts and duh-I-dunno stares. Make the least offensive of these losers sympathetic by default, but be sure your audience always feels superior to everybody onscreen.
Only when Gentlemen Broncos brings Benjamin’s future-pulp novel to life does the movie perk up: The hero (Rockwell), flipping between Southern shitkicker and Johnny Winter with an effeminate lisp, fights cyclops and cyborg deer to a cheesy synth soundtrack. Such sheer displays of space-cookie weirdness do jolt you out of the stupor that Hess’s cringeathon induces. They don’t, however, make the rest of the movie’s pointless meanness seem any less shallow or aggressively unfunny.