Saturday, July 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fanboys (2008)

A review of the road-trip comedy Fanboys (2008), presents a unique crisis for me. Over the years, you see, I have been accused of being something of a Fanboy myself. I believe the exact words were "Fanboy Overachiever."

No, really
. Imagine that.

So if I inform you that a movie poking fun at fanboy ways isn't very good (or even particularly funny...), you might conclude I'm thin-skinned, insecure, and can't take a joke about my own peeps.

On the other hand, should I attempt to be jocular -- courageously a "good sport" -- and tell you how great, funny and spot-on this movie is, you might actually watch it...but then see that I'm lying through my teeth. Then you might not trust me as a critic.

I'm going to opt for the route of total honesty here, with the possible (adverse) result being that some readers will just think I'm a humorless bastard who can't take a joke. But you know what? I can live with that.

So here's my honest, overachieving, fanboyish assessment of Fanboys, put in the lingo that the film's stereotypical protagonists would clearly understand:

It sucks. Or rather, IT SUCKS!!!!!!

doesn't suck, however because it mocks fan culture with wanton glee. On the contrary, I could tell you stories from sci-fi conventions that would "freeze your soul," to quote Q. There was this one convention, for instance, where Kathryn and I innocently sat down-wind from a line of obese folk dancers. When these corpulent souls flapped and waved their long skirts during a performance, the body odor emanating from that chorus-line could have decimated the audience faster than Shinzon's Thalaron weapon. Seriously, we almost choked.

Nor does Fanboys suck because it superficially portrays fanboys as overweight, buck-toothed, socially-inept, anger-management acne cases. Believe me, I've been on that panel before. In fact, I've made a personal vow never to grow my hair long and wear a pony tail ever again, after sharing one such panel with an officious, socially-inept, anger-management prick with a pony tail. Do. Not. Want. To. Be. Mistaken. For. That. Guy. Ever.

No, Fanboys sucks because it is a derivative, mostly unfunny, generic effort...and one poorly executed on virtually all fronts.

Most significantly, Fanboys sucks because it isn't particularly insightful about the subject matter of choice; about those things which might legitimately ignite fanboy rage, derision or scorn. The opposite is just as true: the movie has zero understanding of why Star Wars resonated so powerfully (and so positively) with a generation of American children.

The inevitable result is that Fanboys is knowledgeable but not knowing. It can expertly quote Star Wars trivia till the cows come home, but can't contextualize the importance of that minutiae for the curious non-fan looking in from the outside. Because of this shallow approach, the movie is nothing but another episodic, raunchy, road trip comedy about opposing "teams." One team (Star Wars) doesn't like the other team (Star Trek) and tries to score points, but ultimately you could substitute DC vs. Marvel, Mac vs. Microsoft, Mets vs. Yankees, Christian vs. Muslim, conservative vs. liberal or any other "team" affiliation you like and end up with pretty much exactly the same disappointing movie that you see here.

As evidence of my assertion, you might easily and accurately interpret Fanboys as a sort of slavish copy of Adam Rifkin's 1999 road trip movie, Detroit Rock City. That film was set in the 1970s and involved four young male fans of the rock band KISS making an all-important trek to a concert in Detroit.

Along their epic journey, these friends encountered the true enemy of all KISS fans...disco fans! One exaggerated interlude on the road trip even required a forced, embarrassing strip-tease from one of the four buddies. of the four KISS buffs, Jam, was played by an actor named Sam Huntington.

But Detroit Rock City was visually adroit (especially the Gene Simmons tongue cam...) and also fun. It was made so, in part, by the clever use of nostalgic period music like "Fox on the Run," "Boogie Shoes" by KC and the Sunshine Band, C.W. McCall's "Convoy" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." Detroit Rock City also made reference to disco decade icons like The Fonz, Jimmy Carter and Charlie's Angels.

Now compare and contrast: Fanboys is set in the year 1998 and involves four young adult, male fans (again), one named Eric --- played by the self-same Sam Huntington of Detroit Rock City! Because their friend Linus (Chris Marquette) is dying of cancer, these budz make a pilgrimage to the Lucas Film Ranch in San Francisco to illicitly see an early rough cut of 1999's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Along their epic journey, these Star Wars fans face-off against their dedicated enemy: Trekkies (or Spocksuckers, as one friend, Hutch, terms them), And in one embarrassing interlude (in a gay bar called "The Mantina"), the Star Wars fanboys are even forced to do an embarrassing strip tease!!! Fanboys also makes nostalgic use of such 1990s music such as "Whoomp There It Is" by Tag Team (1993), and The Smashing Pumpkin's "Today" (also 1993). The film even references a number of 1990s pop culture icons and memories, from the Spice Girls to...Zima.

So, really, it's the same damn movie with different dressing.

Even the "enemies" fulfill the same supporting function in each film, as cartoony costumed threats; either John Travolta-wannabes in big-lapeled white suits, or Trekkies in ill-fitting, brightly-colored uniforms and over-sized, pointed ears. One cultural sub-set, KISS fans, has been replaced with another pop-culture sub-set, Star Wars fans, but the jokes are pretty much identical, only with the appropriate trivia references included. If you don't believe me, make a night of it and rent Detroit Rock City and Fanboys from Netflix. You'll see...

The jokes in Fanboys are pretty scattershot, and for the most part poorly staged. Let me give you a prime example. There's a moment late in the film in which the four buddies, and the sexy Zoe (Kristen Bell), have arrived at the Lucasfilm Ranch and stand ready to complete their quest. Our five "epic" heroes stand in a line -- from one edge of the frame to another (their van, the Slave 2, perched behind them). They approach us in that formation for the briefest of moments. Now, this is the famous "BMF Shot" (Bad Mother Fucker Shot) made famous by a dozen bad Hollywood blockbusters (usually by Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay). But it's staged ineptly here. It should be cut in extreme slow motion so as to accentuate each dramatic step. There should be a "hot" atmospheric glare or lens flare in front of our iconic heroes as they approach us too, looking serious and mock-tough. But instead, the moment is robbed of gravitas (and therefore humor...), sort of half-staged and half-assed. You understand what the director was striving for, but it isn't successfully achieved. Many of the film's jokes are like that. Botched.

Fanboys also frequently mistakes motion (or velocity) for humor. The film is an endless series of tiresome chases. The four buddies run afoul of Trekkies in Riverside, Iowa, and flee. The four buddies must break Linus out of the hospital, and then flee. The four buddies encounter an angry pimp (Seth Rogen), and must flee. The four buddies meet William Shatner at a Star Trek convention, but then are spotted by wrathful Trekkies and must flee. They break into Lucasfilm and run into Security (dressed like the police of THX-1138 and led by Ray Park) and must...

...well, you get the idea. The funniest line in the film goes to Kristen Bell, who notes to the four buddies "this is the most exercise you've gotten all year." Not only is that a funny and legitimate insight about fanboys, but the dialogue accurately summarizes the movie's action. Confrontation. Run. Confrontation. Run.

Which is fine, except that Fanboys wants to tug at your heart strings too. Linus is dying of cancer, remember? He won't live to see the premiere of The Phantom Menace in six months, and this is his last hurrah. The last time the old gang can get together. Yet the movie is so manic, so busy, so capricious, the supposedly heart-felt subplot (and apparent raison d'etre of the movie...) hardly registers.

Now, I know the background, of course...all fanboys do, don't they? The director was allegedly only permitted to re-insert the cancer plot-line at the last minute. Fine...but you don't review movies based on what was supposed to be in them; you review them on what's up there, on the screen. I don't mean to be harsh. Fanboys is likable enough, but only about 30% of the material is actually funny. And the movie never makes the case why Star Wars is so important to these characters. Hutch gives a speech about how everybody must "find their Death Star," but Linus never gets to explain how Star Wars affected his ideas of friendship, love, mortality...anything. In this movie, being a Star Wars fan is just a funny label to hang around the necks of the characters.

Let me put it another way. If you're looking for an excavation of fanboy culture you could do a lot better than this movie. If the documentary Trekkies didn't exist, Christopher Guest would have had to invent it. Galaxy Quest (1999) also features some affectionate but even-handed observations about fans. I also rather like Mark Altman's Woody Allen-esque Free Enterprise (1999). And Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008) does a better (and funnier) job with the fanboy mentality in one interlude (the Star Wars porno...) than Fanboys manages during the whole bloomin' movie.

By contrast, Fanboys only scratches the surface of fan culture. It really is shallow. Just look at the outfits of the Trekkies in this film, and their "equipment" (tricorders, etc.) too. Trekkies might be a lot of irritating or funny things, but one thing is true: they pay obsessive attention to detail. Their self-made uniforms fit. Their props are accurate down to the last button.

But it's so much easier to make them figures of fun than it is to accurately observe their neuroses and obsessions, and then play on those. So the Trekkies in this movie wear ill-fitting uniforms and Spock Ears that real Trekkies wouldn't be caught dead in. Thus an important point is glossed over: love of Star Trek or Star Wars might be considered obnoxious, bizarre or weird by some people in the mainstream, but these loves are gate ways, actually, to other realms. To understanding make-up application, to sewing, astronomy, physics, computer animation, and also writing and filmmaking. Fanboys doesn't understand that, it just wants to settle for the lowest common denominator stereotypes. Sure, Eric is a comic artist who miraculously becomes successful in the movie's less-than-convincing ending, but there's no explicit connection to his art work and his inspiration, Star Wars. What made him love comics? What taught him to draw? Didn't he spend grade school drawing TIE Fighters and Yoda?

Fanboys is a raunchy road trip that just happens to be about Star Wars fan. Thanks to some brilliant marketing, the movie has earned some serious and earnest devotion and loyalty from real fanboys. But the low quality of the final picture eerily echoes Fanboys' last line.

What if the movie sucks?


  1. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Your review raped my childhood.

    Actually I agree with it entirely. This movie was so dissapointing. And what was with the Kevin Smith cameo anyway it was just thrown into the blender and had nothing to do with ANYTHING.

    The director has really gotten fans on his side in his battle against the EVIL EMPEROR Harvey Weinstein but his movie just doesn't warrant the attention or love and support.

    One of the worst comedies I have seen in a while. And I saw LAND OF THE LOST.

  2. Hey Anonymous:

    I always like to see Kevin Smith (and Jason Mewes), but I agree that the cameo felt like a late addition, just tossed in.

    That said, I forgot in my review to comment on something I did enjoy about the film. I really enjoyed Ethan Suplee's portrayal of Head Geek Harry Knowles as a soft-voiced, but iron-fisted enforcer-type. I thought that scene was a lot of fun.


  3. Anonymous3:00 AM

    Welp, I liked it, but then again, after all the trouble I had read about how long and how TPTB screwed with the movie, I was just glad to finally see it. And yeah, they could have done more background, gave us more info, but seriously, I know these guys, I still see them at the comic shop every Wednesday and every convention I go to. I bought the DVD too. One of my fellow Star Wars fans said, they should do a follow-up, of their reactions to the awful emo-Episode Trilogy. Still, while Fanboys is not perfect, it's a million times better then that awful set of movies...

  4. Hey Carl,

    Thanks for dropping by to talk about Fanboys.

    I do agree that, in general, the movie nailed certain "fan types" but it didn't look at all behind those types; as to the why. Why all the rage from Hutch (and I know fans just like him); what is it about fandom and anger that often goes hand-in-hand?

    I just wish the movie had chosen to be a little bit more about the fanboy mentality and a little less about the road trip paradigm, with "wacky" and over-the-top adventures.


  5. Hrm. I thought about seeing this film and was kinda on the fence about it but your review has made me glad that I didn't plunk down some hard earned money to see it. Perhaps I'll wait until it pops up on cable and go watch FREE ENTERPRISE again, which, to my mind, is still the best film about fanboys.

  6. Anonymous12:01 PM

    Bimbos Of The Death Sun.

    You know these people.

    You do not want to be these people.