Fanboys, a bittersweet comedy about five friends searching for the meaning of life in Star Wars, is an uneven tribute to the bonds that make scifi fans a community rather than just a marketing niche.
Despite hilarious cameos from big names like Seth Rogen, William Shatner, and Kevin Smith, as well as terrific performances from its main cast, Fanboys languished in development limbo for years. At one point, the studio threatened to gut the film's main plot about a Star Wars fan who is dying of cancer - and at other points, they threatened to shelve the film forever. Lucky for us, the film comes out tomorrow as it was intended, with the cancer plot intact.
I say "lucky for us" not because this film is an unqualified success - it isn't - but because the cancer plot is part of what makes it more than just another boring satire of Star Wars fandom. Five friends who have drifted apart since high school unexpectedly reconnect at a party. Eric, who has abandoned his dreams of drawing comics to run his dad's car dealerships, runs into the turbo-nerdy Zoe, Hutch, and Windows, who tell him their friend Linus is dying of cancer. Though Eric and Linus were once bromantic buds, they haven't spoken for years: Linus feels like Eric abandoned their fannish dreams for sellout crap, and Eric feels like Linus and the crew are stuck in extended adolescence.
But Eric is galvanized by the news of Linus' impending death, and reawakens their old high school dreams of breaking into Skywalker Ranch to see the rough cut of The Phantom Menace (the movie takes place the year before Episode 1 hit theaters in 1998). Eventually he convinces the old crew to go on a road trip in Hutch's tricked-out Jedi van, crossing the country from Ohio to California, on a quest to make sure Linus won't die before seeing their beloved series' new chapter.
At its best, Fanboys exudes a kind of brawling fun reminiscent of Animal House. These are young dorks just blundering their way into self-knowledge, and a few of their adventures are amusing - such as a raid on a group of Trekkies who have erected a statue of Captain Kirk in his "future birthplace" of Riverside, Iowa. They wind up getting into Star Wars vs. Star Trek gang war that's good, stupid goofiness, and Seth Rogen shines as the main Trekker defending his statue of Kirk. (Later, Rogen shows up again as a tattooed, Star Wars-loving pimp, in another gooftastic performance.)
There's also a pleasing subplot where Windows journeys out of cluelessness to discover that even though Zoe is a geek she's a girl too - and she likes him. Given that hottie Kristin Bell is playing Zoe, it's a little hard to believe that Windows had never noticed her before, but it's still cute to see the two of them falling into nerd love. Similarly, the friendship between Eric and Linus is rekindled in a way that's touching and provides much-needed narrative direction for what is too often directionless sketch comedy.
Unfortunately, most of the movie is a muddle of bad fart jokes, bad "you're a fag - no, you're a fag" jokes, bad internet girlfriend jokes, and yawn-inducing fist-fights with Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News. (Well, OK, the Harry Knowles thing was slightly funny, except for the fact that it wasn't actually Harry Knowles.)
A lot of the scenes feel like bottom-of-the-barrel Saturday Night Live sketches. You know, funny in the writers' room but in practice they go on for way too long and get into tooth-grindy territory. Like, for instance, when the gang is trapped in a bar full of scary Mexican dude stereotypes, who turn out (surprise) actually to be GAY scary Mexican dude stereotypes. Yeah, comedy gold. Followed by a really long, awful scene where one of the Gay Scary Mexican Dudes gives the gang peyote and they totally trip out, man. For waaaaaaaaay too long.
Similarly, an encounter with hookers in Vegas gets dragged out for what seems like hours of the unfunny. Even the cameo by William Shatner was pretty meh. Still, the movie has a sweetness to it, helped along by great performances, that make the final sequence at Skywalker Ranch into something more than a clumsily-written race through George Lucas' trash compactor, after being chased by the cops from THX 1138.
Fanboys, for all its flaws, actually made me cry. That's not because I am a wuss, but because unlike so many movies about death, Fanboys explores how everyone's lives revolve around peculiar goals that aren't easy to sum up in a Hallmark card. What's so moving is that Linus' friends understand that what he needs to die happy isn't some stupid, generic encounter with spirituality or some Benjamin Button kind of crap. It's seeing The Phantom Menace. That they help him fulfill that wish, and that we come to understand how precious it is to him, is what will make even the most macho fan dudes get weepy at the end of this flick.
The point of Fanboys is not, as some reviewers have said, simply to revel in references to pop culture. It's to celebrate how fandom brings friends together, and how a mythos like Star Wars gives us a language to describe what is truly meaningful in life: Our connections to each other, which transcend even death.