Fanboys (United States, 2008)

February 03, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fanboys Poster

I wish I could be more positive about Fanboys because I understand what the filmmakers are trying to do. Their goal is to provide a Valentine to fanboys and fangirls worldwide - all those who devote themselves to an element of pop culture and often suffer ridicule for their passion. Unfortunately, while Fanboys has moments of success, it is mostly a middling road picture that doesn't do a lot more than any average, forgettable entry into the tired genre. The film's occasional geekgasms are counterbalanced by the tediousness of traveling from one location to another, and the unevenness with which the journey is developed leads one to believe that the movie's troubled production history was not entirely repaired in the editing room. To be sure, Fanboys has moments that will cause smiles to split the faces of fans but the film's ineffective dramatic elements and erratic comedy make this a glass half-full/half-empty experience.

It's fair to say that Fanboys has been abominably treated by its distributor, The Weinstein Company. Originally, it was due to open in August 2007. Re-shoots, re-edits, and marketing uncertainty pushed that date to January 2008 then April 2008 then September 2008 then November 2008. It is finally being dumped into a small number of theaters in February 2009, primarily so the home video release will not be labeled as a "direct-to-DVD" feature. The film has been dogged by controversy, with the Weinsteins re-editing the movie to eliminate a subplot about a terminally ill character. This element has been re-inserted into the final cut but in such a clumsy and unconvincing manner that one suspects it fails to represent the filmmakers' true vision. It would be interesting to know how close the theatrical release of Fanboys is to Kyle Newman's original interpretation of the screenplay. The movie has the feel of something with a lot of fingerprints on it; more than one compromise was necessary to get the film into the 50-odd theaters showing it.

It's Halloween 1998 and the countdown to the release of The Phantom Menace stands at six months and an odd number of days. For a group of Ohio's biggest Star Wars fans - Eric (Sam Huntington), Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler), Windows (Jay Baruchel), and Zoe (Kristen Bell) - that's entirely too long to wait. What makes it especially poignant is that Linus is ill with terminal cancer and won't live to see the premiere. So the group decides to take a road trip to grant him a last wish. They will drive to the Skywalker Ranch, break in, and steal a work print. Along the way, there are stops in Iowa (the "future birthplace" of Star Trek's Captain Kirk); Austin, Texas (the home of Harry Knowles); and Las Vegas.

Fanboys plays out pretty much as one might expect from a road picture. The characters interact with each other, meet a lot of strange people, and reach their destination only after a few unexpected detours. There's an underdeveloped romance between two of the leads. The dialogue is a little flat and the raunchiness is a little tame (due in part to the PG-13 rating). Fanboys could have used an injection of what Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have brought to their films. The humor is hit-and-miss, with more misses than hits, and the chemistry between the actors is not always convincing. We believe these characters are all fanboys (or, in Zoe's case, a fangirl), but it's harder to accept Eric and Linus as lifelong best friends.

When it comes to honoring fandom, the filmmakers have the pulse of their audience. The list of cameos is impressive and not only comprised of the kind of obscure, washed-up actors who typically show up in productions like this. There's Danny Trejo as the hash-smoking The Chief, Billy Dee Williams as the oddly-named Judge Reinhold; Carrie Fisher as a nurse; Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes as themselves or Jay and Silent Bob or some amalgamation of the two; William Shatner as himself (raising the question of why he can provide a cameo in Fanboys but not J.J. Abrams' big-budget Star Trek); and Ray Park as a Skywalker Ranch security guard. The obvious missing cameo is George Lucas; however, while Lucas does not appear in the film, he gave his blessing to it. The same apparently is not true of the suits at Paramount/Viacom. The Star Wars costumes and paraphernalia are genuine, but the Star Trek stuff is not. That may be because Trekkies/Trekkers come out on the losing side of the movie's chapter of the long-running feud between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. (Although Shatner's presence balances the scales.)

Fanboys is chock-full of references to everything from comic books to television to video games. The Star Wars references are everywhere, with the Star Trek nods being only a little less pervasive. (Surprisingly, there's not a single Doctor Who mention throughout.) It's clear that the men behind Fanboys know their material. The film jokingly and affectionately pokes fun at fanboy culture, sifting through the clich├ęs to build the characters and their circumstances. While it's true that few fans will see a replica of themselves in any of Fanboys' protagonists, everyone who identifies with the label "fanboy" will see some representation of their passion on-screen.

However, while Fanboys unquestioningly gets the details right, it's not as strong on the broader elements that make a movie a fully satisfying experience. The cancer subplot, which should have added a layer of bittersweet drama to the road trip, is handled in a perfunctory, unconvincing manner. (At first, I thought it was a hoax to get Eric to agree to accompany his buddies on the trip.) The characters are a little too broadly drawn to capture the average viewer's sympathy. And the movie's humor is along the lines of what one might expect from a neutered version of a Harold and Kumar movie. Some will argue that it's worth enduring all this for the cameos, the filmmakers' insider knowledge of what die-hard fandom represents, and the shots of Kristen Bell in the Princess Leia bikini but, in the final analysis, Fanboys doesn't offer enough for me to give it an unqualified recommendation.

Fanboys (United States, 2008)

Director: Kyle Newman
Cast: Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell
Screenplay: Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg
Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2009-02-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1