In one of the funnier scenes of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, the titular protagonists debate the ethics of bombing the Death Star in the movie Return of the Jedi. It’s funny not just because the slackers apply real-world logic to the Star Wars universe (If the Death Star was under construction, it could have been full of innocent workers!), but because they don’t think twice about doing so. Fanboys, an entire comedy devoted to extreme Star Wars devotees, fails to hit such a high note even once.
As every science-fiction geek knows, “fanboy” (or fangirl) is a slur fans apply to other fans whom they see as expressing their fandom in particularly slavish or silly ways. The thing is, since the term was coined, fanboyism has gone pretty mainstream. Dressing up as one’s favorite fantasy character to attend a movie premiere or convention is not the outré activity it once was. Office workers proudly display their collections of vintage action figures on their desks. At a time when college students and soccer moms spend hours immersed in the virtual worlds of Second Life and World of WarCraft, the phrase “Get a life” no longer really stings.
Fanboys is set (and was first drafted) back in 1998, when the Internet was just starting to geekify America. It focuses on a group of four twentysomething friends in Ohio, each embodying a stereotype. Hutch (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury) is a hirsute, chubby Rush fan who lives in his parents’ basement and drives a van decorated with Star Wars-inspired art. Windows (Jay Baruchel, the rookie in Tropic Thunder) is a pencil-necked poindexter with big glasses. Eric (Sam Huntington), the most clean-cut member of the group, finds his friendship and fandom continually tested by his regular-guy job at his dad’s car dealership. And Linus (Chris Marquette) . . . well, it’s hard to say what’s special about Linus, aside from the fact that he has terminal cancer.
This illness is needed to set the plot in motion, as the other guys want to make sure Linus doesn’t expire without the pleasure of seeing George Lucas’ long-awaited Star Wars prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Since the film’s release date is six long months away, they make a sensible plan to drive cross country, sneak into Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County (known for its Death Star-level security), and get a peek at the print. Wacky hijinks ensue.
Well, sort of. According to media reports, studio head Harvey Weinstein found the cancer theme in director Kyle Newman’s first cut of Fanboys so tonally jarring that he arranged for edits and reshoots that turned the film into a straight spoof. After outcry from the fan community, various scenes involving Linus’ condition were reinstated — but it’s a classic hasty patch-up job. We never get to know the character enough to care about him, and he never seems to be particularly ailing, despite one ER visit where he’s lectured by a doctor played by Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia herself).
In short, the “serious” aspect of the film comes off as an afterthought, tacked on to a series of standard road-movie gags involving gay bikers, run-ins with the police, hookers who don’t announce themselves as such and pointless celebrity cameos. The boys’ Star Wars geekiness adds occasional novelty to the proceedings, as when Hutch proclaims, “We got Imperial bacon” and attempts to send his van into hyperdrive to evade the cops. But the cross-country shtick has been done before and better, as has the geek shtick, by everyone from Joss Whedon to the makers of Wayne’s World.
Seth Rogen shows up in amusing dual roles as a lisping Trekkie (the Star Wars fanboys’ arch-nemesis) and a pimp with Yoda tattooed on his arm. Kristen Bell has a promising role as a sarcastic fangirl whose attractiveness the boys are too blindered to see. But her tough-talking character never hits more than one note . . . not unlike Princess Leia, a replica of whose famous gold bikini Bell dons at the end of the film.
Star Wars movies were never known for great writing or characterization, but they had epic battles in space. Fanboys doesn’t. Ultimately, it wastes its potential and even its best joke: Many adult viewers, even long-time fans, found The Phantom Menace excruciating. Made with Lucas’ assistance and approval, the film can only hint at that ultimate irony. All this effort to get the first glimpse at … a big-budget toy commercial?