The last decade has witnessed a handful of obsession-specific nerd movies. Free Enterprise, a self-consciously goofy buddy comedy, features fanboys growing into their thirties with Star Trek's wisdom, William Shatner's mentoring, and some definite self-doubts. Comic Book Villains, a dark comedy/crime drama took a much less pleasant look at the superhero-worshiping crowd. Now, nerds have our own road movie, concerning the adventures of some Star Wars geeks. The film itself took a long journey to screen and home theater. Two years passed between shooting and release, and the final print reflects those misadventures as much as those of its heroes.
A small, socially arrested group, spurred on by the fact that one of their friends is dying, head out on a road trip in '98, intent on breaking into Skywalker Ranch and seeing The Phantom Menace before anyone else. The reference-heavy opening works, and sets up an engaging premise and some potentially interesting character dynamics. The conclusion returns to the characters, with a final line that should bring a knowing smile to fanboy and fangirl faces everywhere.
What falls between is occasionally funny, but mostly uneven and incomplete.
It's a pity the character development couldn't have been carried consistently throughout the film. It needed that to balance the raunch and silliness.1 As it stands, the film is neither consistently funny enough, while its handling of characters isn't serious enough. For a road movie, a genre built on escape, it raises too many important questions that it never answers. Why did Eric and Linus fall out in the first place? Why does Zoe like Windows (the character) so much? You have to make audiences believe in the relationships so we can care about what happens. Finally, and most importantly, why does Linus's cancer have almost no effect on him, despite how near death stands?
The actors fare reasonably well, and could have handled a more character-savvy script. Seth Rogen gives three different, over-the-top comic performances as various adversaries the group meets along the way. Kirsten Bell does a fun turn as the token fangirl. I wish the serious moments at the end had been better-woven throughout the entire film, as occurred in that recent road-movie hit, Little Miss Sunshine.
Mostly, the chaotic plot exists to provide an opportunity for silly gags and cameo appearances. In addition to Rogan, Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, and William Shatner all turn up for the camera. Most of these are thrown away. Fisher and Williams do parts that could have been given to anyone; the joke doesn't go beyond, "look who that is!" Smith and Mewes' bit was added later, apparently at Smith's request; they've done better in his own nerd-friendly films. Shatner, cast (once again) as parody-Shatner, is pretty funny and, more importantly, it matters that Shatner plays this particular part. In another decent bit, actor Ethan Suplee plays Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. Kudos also go to George Lucas, who does not appear in the film, but cooperated in ways that enhance Fanboys.
Beyond that, our group encounters the usual road trip movie traps: suspicious cops, a mysterious stranger, a cultural clash, a small town jail, scenic highways, tourist sites, and angry enemies. And while it pales beside recent gross-out comedies, some people will find the tasteless humor excessive in places. We didn't need another movie joke about a guy using the toilet.
Fundamentally, however, we have at least two different films here. Indeed, two different films were screened to test audiences. One emphasized the raunchy humor and excised the cancer plot entirely. The other emphasized the cancer plot as the motivating factor in the trip. This led to online flame wars, claims of studio interference-- and some very uneven final results. Some of the throwaway gag scenes and cameos were also added later, and contribute to the disjointed, unbalanced final edit.
I found myself comparing this film with those two similar, earlier works, Free Enterprise and Comic-Book Villains. I found the first funnier, with a somewhat healthier portrayal of fannish nerds. In addition, despite its Trek focus, it represents a range of nerdy interests. However, it also drags in places, and its plot doesn't amount to much. Fanboys tries to do more with the characters, even if it only occasionally succeeds. The wildly uneven Comic Book Villains presents its characters in the least positive light—- though, of course, it is only partially a comedy. However, it makes the most of its plot. Fanboys isn't bad, but the definitive Nerd Film about Nerds remains to be made.
This film has some good moments. If you're a fan of Star Wars or a general SF geek, you should get a few laughs from this movie. However, it leaves unfulfilled two great premises: the overall concept of Nerd Road Movie, and the specific Fandom Quest of its heroes. I laughed, but I kept wishing this had been the far better film one sporadically glimpses.
Directed by Kyle Newman.
Written by Ernest Cline, Adam F. Goldberg2, and Dan Pulick
Sam Huntington as Eric
Chris Marquette as Linus
Dan Fogler as Hutch
Jay Baruchel as Windows
Kristen Bell as Zoe
Seth Rogan as various
David Denham as Chaz
Christopher McDonald as Big Chuck
Danny Trejo as the Chief
Ethan Suplee as Harry Knowles
Allie Grant as Rogue Leader
Billy Dee Williams as the Judge
Carrie Fisher as the Doctor
William Shatner as himself
Jason Mewes as himself
Kevin Smith as himself
1. How strangely appropriate, given the film's McGuffin, that it should fall down in its handling of character.
2. Goldberg had earlier penned a remake of Revenge of the Nerds, which was canceled a short time into the filming. One wonders if ideas from that project found their way into this script.