Director: Kyle Newman
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Christopher Marquette, Kristen Bell
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I had my doubts the day would ever come where I'd get to watch and review Fanboys. Within the past couple of years there have been maybe only two or three films I felt I just had to see based on their premise and trailers alone . This was one them. The idea of four Star Wars fanatics traveling cross country to Skywalker Ranch to steal a print of Episode I bursts with unlimited creative potential. But I must confess to some bias on that point. A while back I came up with an idea pretty similar to this and, like all my ideas, never did anything with it. That's of no consequence since I've built up quite a collection of 3 x 5 index cards filled with unused, half-developed brainstorms but this was the first I recognized onscreen in some form or another. So understandably my curiosity was piqued as to how writer/director Kyle Newman would handle the material.
I approached Fanboys in a mindset similar to how I did Southland Tales in that it was a film I had looked forward to for years, but when stories spread about behind-the-scenes creative clashes and a troubled post-production, I was forced into approaching it with what could best be called "cautious optimism." I wondered if this film could also overcome the odds, despite sitting on the shelf for three years during an ugly public feud between the studio and director. Unfortunately, the real losers in that feud turned out to be the fans.
After missing about 4 release dates due to re-shoots and re-edits the film was finally released with a whimper in February but it was too late for anyone to care and was subsequently met with a smattering of negative reviews (including an unusually mean spirited attack on Star Wars fans from Roger Ebert) It's impossible to know for sure how much of Newman's original vision is present in the final cut but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that it's not nearly enough because the end result is kind of a truncated mess.
The bitter battle over whether to include the now infamous cancer sub-plot has clearly caused the movie to slip away from Newman. This element has since been re-inserted, but sloppily, and other aspects of the film suffer slightly because of it. This should have been better. Much, much better. Those looking to blame Harvey "Darth" Weinstein have a strong case because it looks like he really did do some serious damage here and came very close to ruining the film. The good news though, is that enough survived to earn it a solid, if somewhat tentative, recommendation.
While I smiled and chuckled during many portions of Fanboys there were also times where I didn't and wondered what this movie would have played in its original, un-tampered with form. The true irony is that while it does harness the excitement we all felt awaiting the opening of Episode I, it also permeates with that feeling of disappointment when it finally did. I also underestimated how little I wanted to be reminded of the prequels and the letdown accompanying them.
If you think about it, it's tough to look back on what George Lucas did in the summer of 1999 and laugh. At least I find it tough, and I'm not even what you'd consider a "die-hard" fan. But it is fun to go back to that special moment in time BEFORE it opened when we were about to see "the greatest movie ever made." As much as Fanboys takes unnecessary detours and makes some wrong steps, it at least captures that moment effectively.
It's October, 1998. The release of The Phantom Menace is six months away and counting. Far from just being a movie, for Eric (Sam Huntington), Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Windows (Jay Baruchel), four friends and proud Star Wars fanatics from Ohio, it represents the defining event of their lifetime. But Eric has since moved on, or at least has done a good enough job convincing himself he's grown out of his obsession, miserably working at his sleazy, flamboyant father Big Chuck's (Christopher McDonald) used car dealership.
Things change when Eric learns that Linus is dying of terminal cancer and has only months to live. With his urging the foursome decide to make good on their crazy childhood dream of breaking into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and stealing the unreleased film....so they can destroy it. Sorry. Just some wishful thinking. It's actually so Linus can see it before he dies. They're eventually joined by every geek's dream fangirl Zoe (Kristen Bell), who not only loves Star Wars, but hangs out at the local comic book store, which is apparently where I should be frequenting more often.
A road trip commences and it's a little disappointing that it does feel derivative of every other road trip movie, with the added Star Wars element, but luckily that element is a very welcome one. Their misadventures along the way are littered with a lot of cameos. I mean A LOT. Maybe the most I've ever seen in a comedy. Some are funnier than others and at times it feels like the characters are just being dropped from one excursion to the next just so all these names can appear, but they do add to the overall viewing experience in mostly positive ways.
We have Danny Trejo as a pot smoking Indian chief who's the catalyst for a hallucinatory dream sequence that's probably best appreciated under the influence. Seth Rogen in dual roles, one of which is absolutely hilarious. And we're treated to an appearance from film critic Harry Knowles, who I thought must have lost a ton of weight until I realized he was being played by Ethan Suplee. It's shocking that the real Knowles didn't cameo since you'd figure the shameless self-promoter and ultimate fanboy would jump at the chance to appear as himself in something like this.
Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith pop up playing variations (I think) on their Jay & Silent Bob characters while Danny McBride has a very memorable and funny role as a Skywalker Ranch security head. The Star Wars vets prove to be good sports as Carrie Fisher shows up as a physician, Ray "Darth Maul" Park as a security guard and Billy Dee Williams as..."JUDGE REINHOLD." Yes, I know the joke seems like something a fifth grader would come up with and it was much funnier on Arrested Development when the role was ACTUALLY PLAYED by Judge Reinhold, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I still laughed.
The best cameo belongs to William Shatner who for some reason isn't given so much as a walk-on in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot but can land a bit part in a movie celebrating Star Wars. The fanboys vs. "Trekkies" sub-plot works best and produces the most consistent hilarity in a film where consistency is frequently absent. It almost pains me to report the sub-plot that's handled poorest is the cancer storyline, which seems to appear and disappear at the plot's convenience. It's in the movie just the exact wrong amount, showing up as almost an afterthought until the final scenes when it does register. By then it seems almost too late.
As haphazardly as it was re-incorporated though, all the angry fans had a point that it does belong in there. Without it the story doesn't have much of point. Then again, if they were just going to forget about it anyway, why put it back in? The issue has less to do with whether it should be there than HOW because it doesn't always mix well with the gross-out, slapstick humor. Of course that can happen when you re-edit your movie 75,000 times and spend three years in post-production hell.
Sam Huntington (best known for playing Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) acclimates nicely as the leading man, even when it's not entirely clear he's the leading man amidst the film's constantly shifting focus. Marquette and Baruchel's characters seem to get more attention and screen time and both deliver solid performances. This is also a victory of sorts for the seemingly talentless, but Tony Award winning (no joke) actor Dan "Balls of Fury" Fogler, who turns in what just might be his least grating work to date. Don't get me wrong he's still annoying as hell but at least he's found a part where he's supposed to be stuck in a permanent state of adolescence.
My future wife Kristen Bell has a role that's miles away from her recent co-starring turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, even though shooting on this probably wrapped years before casting on that film began. I complained about Bell's role in that but one thing I couldn't say was that it was underdeveloped or underwritten. This feels like it could have been or that scenes of hers were left on the cutting room floor, but it's a trade-off I'll take because this comes closer to the types of roles I'd like to see her in. I wish more was done with her but when she does appear (primarily in the third act) there were glimpses of her Veronica Mars character in there. That made it especially frustrating for me that she wasn't given more. It's enough I guess, but I'm greedy.
An attempted romance with one of the main characters seemed forced and manufactured, not to mention that it's with the wrong character. The whole thing just rings false. Had this sub-plot been executed well it would have really showcased her skills and added an extra layer of poignancy to the story, if that's even what they were going for. That's part of the problem. I had no idea what they were going for. But yes it's true that Bell does wear the Slave Girl Leia costume. Patience you must have. It's worth the wait. And so sue me I think I might even like her better as a brunette.
With all the behind the scenes drama in making the film it's at least nice to discover the studio didn't cut any corners in procuring music for the soundtrack. You can't dislike any movie that features Rush and forgotten late '90's alt-rock classics. When an all-time favorite of mine blasted at just the right moment in the film's final scene I was grinning from ear to ear. The last line of dialogue perfectly encapsulates in one question what we were all feeling right before the curtain went up on Episode I.
For the record, I don't think The Phantom Menace "sucks." Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull... now that sucked. But if we were to weigh expectations against actual execution I do think The Phantom Menace should rank among the most disappointing films ever made. There's just no reason that or any of the prequels should have existed and if I could somehow stop the release of just one movie it would probably be Episode I. That's the primary appeal of this movie: Cleansing us of that feeling.
Wherever the blame lies, it's terrible to be letdown by something you just know will be spectacular. There's an undercurrent of that running throughout Fanboys. Lucas doesn't appear in the film and strangely that seems right. I, like many, have little desire to see him involved with any Star Wars project anymore. It somehow seems cooler without his presence, but to his credit he not only gave Newman his blessing, but the rights to use Star Wars trademarks in a feature film. You could argue its the only intelligent decision Lucas has made with the brand in the past two decades.
I also understand why no mention of the film's tumultuous journey to the screen was made on the DVD because if I were Newman I wouldn't want to talk bout it either. A fun commentary track, some deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes are fine and that's exactly what we get. The guy's been through a war and came out on the losing end, despite the outpouring of fan support. While they meant well, I wonder if their attempts to "save the film" did more harm than good, resulting in excessive tinkering that distorted the final product. It's awful that what obviously started as a filmmaker's labor of love turned into such a messy public disaster. If nothing else, Newman deserves some really stiff drinks and a long, well-deserved break.
It's funny how I was mostly either unsure or disappointed while watching the picture but when it ended I had mostly fond memories of the experience. I'll probably even see it again hoping against hope that maybe its problems will be ironed out and the pieces will fit together a little better. I'm convinced I wouldn't have been able to bash this if I tried. I can't think of a recent movie I wanted to love more. There must be an original theatrical cut of Fanboys locked away in Harvey Weinstein's office that didn't make it to theaters or DVD. That's the one I want to see. If anyone ever decides to steal it, they can count me in.