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February 9, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | February 9, 2009 |

Kyle Newman’s Fanboys is a sweet mess of a film, an earnest comedy about geeks (and almost completely specifically for them) that suffers too much from shoddy technique and an imbalanced tone, especially during the clumsily expositional first act. The movie is successful when it sticks to the social misfits at the center of the story and allows their love of genre storytelling to inform their actions, dialogue, and fights over the finer intricacies of George Lucas’ creative universe. Because of its subject matter — a group of young twentysomethings in 1998 band together to steal a copy of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace — the film has to necessarily take playful swipes at Lucas’ film because of the backlash and criticism it ignited in the fan community, and Newman and screenwriters Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg aren’t about to pretend that movie was anything other than a massive artistic letdown. However, their willingness to examine the weaknesses in the things they love and the real reason behind obsessive fandom doesn’t alleviate the burden of a weak script filled with often cartoonish set pieces, no matter how much they wish it could. Fanboys means well, and tries hard, but the filmmakers would have done well to remember that they can either do, or do not; there is no try.

The film opens with John Williams’ iconic Star Wars fanfare as the film’s title is blasted on the screen in yellow outline, giving way to a text crawl that’s been parodied so many times it’s hard to tell if Newman is being sarcastic or lovingly referential. (Answer: Sure.) But the crawl quickly starts joking about its own content, then posits a question about where its own words are even going, and whether they’ll hit an alien “who sees them and says, WTF?” Then, to make sure the corpse is dead, the crawl ends with “sent from my iPhone,” because apparently Newman wanted to make a groaner comedy on the level of late-career Mel Brooks. It’s not that the film doesn’t get better — it does, marginally — but to start from the top with such hokey, generic comedy robs the film of the momentum necessary to get the audience to invest in the characters we’re now embarrassed to meet. Newman gets temporarily lost in a metafictional spiral, moving from “I’m telling you what I’m doing” to “I’m telling you that I’m telling you what I’m doing,” and it’s not pretty.

Mercifully, the action shifts down to Earth and a Halloween party where Eric (Sam Huntington) is making small talk with his old friend, Zoe (Kristen Bell). It’s a couple years after high school, and Eric and Zoe helpfully rehash the fact that Eric has had a falling out with old buddies, a trio of nerds who enter the party dressed as Darth Vader and a pair of stormtroopers. Eric looks over and sees his former friend Windows (Jay Baruchel) as Vader, with Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Linus (Chris Marquette) as soldiers. Eric is clad in a suit and tie, having come straight from the car dealership where he works for his father (Christopher McDonald) and older brother (David Denman) and is being gradually pressed to give up his dream of becoming a comic-book artist and take up the family mantle of auto sales. His old friends are similarly stuck in pre-adulthood, with Hutch living in his mom’s garage and Windows working at a comic book store. When they all get drunk at the party — “six Zimas to the wind,” as Hutch says — Linus reminds them of the plan they’ve had since childhood to travel to Skywalker Ranch in northern California and hijack the print of Episode I, which won’t hit theaters for another six months. (How they plotted in childhood to steal a movie that hadn’t been thought of yet isn’t addressed.) Eric laughs at the idea like he does everything else these guys do, but when he learns the next day that Linus has an ill-defined cancer that gives him only a few months to live, he resurrects their boyhood road map and convinces the rest of the gang that the cross-country trek and subsequent boosting of the film isn’t just possible, but imperative.

And so they set out in Hutch’s custom-designed van, externally adorned with poster artwork and internally plastered with decals and trading cards the numbers of which verge on the sociopathic. When the four young geeks make amends and hit the road, the story finally starts to jell as much as it ever will, and it’s the goofy and genuine interactions between the characters that give the film personality and turn it fleetingly from a spoof of fandom into a movie about fans. The boys’ devotion to Lucas is never in doubt, and the passion they can summon when arguing about, say, the incestual sexual politics of the original trilogy is warm and endearing to anyone who’s ever cared almost too deeply about a movie. Zoe joins the trip halfway and acts as the requisite love interest in another subplot that’s cute but never affecting. For every plot point that allows for real humor, the film also blunders into weird confrontations with “Star Trek” fans — who get in a physical brawl with the main characters more than once — and run-ins with gay bikers, homeless drug dealers, and deceptively attractive escorts. The film veers between forced wackiness and legitimate comedy, eager to do more but never quite able to settle on a tone. Parts of the story often feel ungainly grafted onto one another and held together with the kind of clumsy dubbing meant to mask a patchy narrative; the action will cut to a different room or moment as one character says something like “It’s a good thing we found that door unlocked,” or something similar.

The most interesting moments in the film are the rare ones in which Eric and Linus, as well as the rest of the gang, debate the merits of giving so much of themselves to a sci-fi movie saga, and it’s impossible to know just how much of this honest but not unkind introspection was in the original script or cut of the film. Fanboys has a production history as discussed in certain circles as Lucas’ works, suffering release date changes and forced reshoots at the hand of another director, Steven Brill (the culprit behind, among other things, Little Nicky and Drillbit Taylor), who at one point excised Linus’ cancer from the story in hopes of broadening the comedy; it was only after tests and endless debate that the illness — which is pretty much the impetus behind the trip — was reinstated. The point is that there are moments in Fanboys that are funny, genuine ones in which the characters note the downsides of their own slavish devotion even while praising that devotion’s object. Linus even admits that the “crappy effects and real puppets” are part of what lend the Star Wars saga its charm, and are in fact “what makes it good.” But if Linus’ point is meant to be a prop against those who would find flaws in Fanboys itself, it doesn’t work. The film is cute and inoffensive but overall a lightweight, amateurish movie that doesn’t even work that hard to please its narrowly targeted audience, and would be impossibly boring for anyone else. It’s not hard to imagine that in time, Fanboys will become for the fan community what Episode I already is: A good idea that most people try to forget.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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