The week of December 13, 2015

What the forgotten hope of ‘Fanboys’ says about ‘Star Wars’ fandom

By Nathan Rabin

Not long ago, in this very galaxy, a brave band of nerds fell in love with the idea of Fanboys, a coming-of-age sex comedy about four Star Wars superfans—one of them dying of cancer, naturally—who vow to sneak into George Lucas’s hidden fortress and become the first people disappointed by Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.

It may have sounded good on paper: a film from 2009, set a decade earlier in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and playing out in the form of a 1980s teen sex comedy. It’s got built-in layers of nostalgia and referentiality. Unfortunately, it’s just those elements that doom it: Fanboys is an act of fandom more than artistry, and, self-blinded, it ultimately offers no insight into that fandom—just rapturous, unambiguous, and uncritical love for a film from 1977. So afraid to say (or even imply!) anything negative about Star Wars or its fanbase, Fanboys leaves the films and the fans unscathed, but also unsatirized. Instead, it digs shallowly into its other trope mine, ’80s sex comedies, and becomes a litany of limp gags about a straight dude’s discomfort with gay sex and the nerdiness of Star Trek fans. It’s undone by reverence and timidity.

It feels halfhearted and rote, but if Fanboys has nothing new to say about fandom, its reception can remind us, unfortunately, of the worst aspects of obsessive blind love for a mass cultural product. Too much of that kind of love on the filmmakers’ part turned Fanboys into a toothless failure, but it also helped attract a cult following before the movie was even released. Fanboys of Fanboys believed the movie would speak for them, say something meaningful about fandom to a mass audience that often ridicules them.

That was not to be, but in the meantime the nerds got to embark on a suitably epic quest. In this story, the Galactic Empire was the Weinstein Company, which had bought Fanboys, then put it through a gauntlet of rewrites and reshoots. Fans worried about rumors that the studio would destroy their already-beloved (if unreleased) tale by removing the terminal illness subplot and reshooting with hated hack Dennis Dugan. (From the online reactions, you might conclude that rather than Without a Paddle and some Adam Sandler movies, Dugan’s filmography consisted of snuff films and dog-fighting videos.) They launched “Stop Darth Weinstein,” an elaborate online campaign to save their story from meddling interlopers.

A gentleman calling himself Jek Porkins captured the tone of this campaign in a letter to Harry Knowles—who, in keeping with the circle-jerk nature of both fandom and Fanboys, not only applauded an early cut but is also actually a character in the film. Of course, he’s depicted as geekily heroic. Porkins wrote that “after delaying the release of the movie for over a year, the Weinstein Company (the studio who owns it) has decided to recut the entire movie so that it mocks Star Wars fans. … They plan to rip the heart out of the movie and turn it into a mindless comedy that ridicules Star Wars fans, instead of celebrating them.”

Death Star Dork Porkins (sorry, I couldn’t resist; nor could I resist tracking Porkins down and giving him both a wedgie and a swirlie—and I’m a huge geek!) continued, saying that he and the members of the “501st Legion”—“The World’s Definitive Imperial Costuming Organization”—agreed to donate “time, costumes, props, and support” to Fanboys “because it has heart, and is a movie about friendship and what it means to be a fan.” Believing a film has “heart” is the critical equivalent of awarding a participation ribbon, and that it’s “about friendship and what it means to be a fan” seems an awfully bland and weak reason to launch a quest.

The geeks thought they were fighting to preserve something special, but were fighting for something I can’t ever imagine being good.

In the end, the nerds won, after a fashion; after focus-testing, the Weinstein Company theatrically released the “terminal illness” version, and two cuts were later released on DVD. But it ended up being a victory that felt like defeat. The geeks thought they were fighting to preserve something special; in actuality, they were fighting for something I can’t ever imagine being good, let alone worth that kind of an emotional investment, no matter how many times it was recut. It’s a movie about fanatics, enjoyable only by fanatics. Outside the fanboy bubble, critical consensus has settled: Fanboys currently sits at a 32 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yet cultists, deeply invested in the belief that Fanboys spoke to and for them, raved about the film. The “Stop Darth Weinstein” site features fan reviews of early cuts, including doozies like this one from “Gregg”: “I had the honour of attending the Fanboys rough cut screening at Celebration Europe [a huge Star Wars fan convention]. It was a unique movie experience, with spontaneous cheering and applause throughout, capped with a double standing ovation. It was unlike any previous film screening I’d attended, and was a highlight amongst a weekend of highlights. Good luck to Kyle and the team for the film’s release in 2008.”

I don’t doubt the spectacle of a double standing ovation, but I suspect that when Fanboys played to the easiest crowd this side of a cast and crew screening, many people were at least partly applauding their own Star Wars fandom. They stood and clapped, twice, for their own deep emotional connection to the fanboyism portrayed in the film, not for the movie they’d just seen, which was intensely inconsequential, particularly for something that generated so much debate and activism. Unsurprisingly, because this is true of anyone who watches a movie, they brought their own experience to the work. It’s just that in this case, the work was deeply flawed to anyone who wasn’t already a fan.

They stood and clapped, twice, for their own deep emotional connection to the fanboyism portrayed in the film, not for the movie they’d just seen.

Finally, though, we get to the actual film. After a Star Wars-style opening crawl (the first in an endless series of clumsy homages including two separate, riveting trivia contests), Fanboys opens in Ohio in the late 1990s. Four obsessed buddies are ecstatic about the imminent release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and apprehensive about the more mundane realities of adulthood.

First and foremost is Harold “Hutch” Hutcherson, a manic, obnoxious comic-book geek played by walking migraine Dan Fogler—who’s sort of the Mexican, non-union Jack Black, if Jack Black were terrible and everyone hated him. Fogler’s casting goes a long way towards ensuring Fanboys insufferableness, but it doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by two actors (Chris Marquette as Linus and Sam Huntington as Eric) so bland and interchangeable that I had difficulty telling them apart. This was despite Huntington being the ostensible lead and Marquette playing the remarkably healthy cancer patient whose imminent death drives the action. Among the central characters, the only actor who isn’t completely forgettable (or memorable for the wrong reasons) is Jay Baruchel, whose Canadian Woody Allen-by-way-of-Quentin Tarantino shtick sets him apart.

Anyway, Linus is totally dying and Eric is alienated from the group because he has a job where he wears a suit instead of sitting around discussing the complexities of Star Wars all day. So they decide to honor their dying friend and their shared love of the films by going on an epic road trip from the boring old Midwest to Skywalker Ranch to steal a print of The Phantom Menace for Linus to watch before he dies.

Death and fandom intertwined: You can see how fans might have mistaken this for profundity or gravitas, in much the same way they mistake space opera for life advice. Instead, it comes off as an attempt at cheap emotional manipulation, as these four poorly differentiated nerds (helpfully dressed in Star Wars T-shirts, marking them as the hardest of the hardcore) endure a punishing gauntlet of 1980s-style hijinks. Generously, you can call it a loving homage to the archetypes that defined Generation X; less so, you can dub it an endless series of groaning clichés, hack jokes, and stereotypes.

Most unfortunately, in a too-faithful nod to the sexual politics and baby-man terror coursing through Reagan-era sex comedies, a disconcerting number of jokes revolve around heterosexual men’s fear of gay sex. The word “fag” is thrown around as if the screenwriters got paid per homophobic slur, whether it’s calling rivals “Boba Fags” or Hutch telling his friends after they’ve been tossed in jail, “I probably shouldn’t have called that cop a fag.” The four take great delight in questioning the sexuality of one Captain Picard, which doesn’t amuse a pathetic Trekker caricature played by special guest star Seth Rogen. And early in the film, their macho posturing at what turns out (hilariously, of course) to be a gay bar leads to angry demands that they disrobe, followed by an extended peyote freakout featuring Danny Trejo.

A disconcerting number of jokes revolve around heterosexual men’s fear of gay sex. The word “fag” is thrown around as if the screenwriters got paid per homophobic slur.

If those do not sound like the base components for a smart, soulful, funny, and insightful exploration of friendship, growing up, and obsessive fandom, it’s for a very good reason: They’re not. Despite what activist fans and the filmmakers imagined, having a poorly drawn character die does not automatically imbue this alternately misanthropic and pandering trifle with soulfulness or substance. Pausing every half hour from jokes about how Star Trek fans are nerds, and nerds are virgins, and also hot girls don’t want to have sex with nerds, but maybe they do, to reflect on how Linus will soon be dead and growing up is hard doesn’t make Fanboys a more substantive, important or true movie; it just results in jarring tonal shifts, as a movie that is rather aggressively not about anything other than its love for its source reaches for a significance it does nothing to merit.

Late in the movie there’s a new hope, a glimmer of a better film. An old-fashioned projector clicks dramatically into action and fans prepare for the sacred ritual of watching the film that has kept their souls and psyches hostage for months, even years. It’s a moment that got to me a little, emotionally, but that burst of nostalgia feels unearned; it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact it would have had the film compellingly shown the glory of fandom, whether rooted in Star Wars or not, rather than merely telling us how great it is that these guys all love this cool thing called Star Wars.

Fanboys had an opportunity to poignantly explore what I think we can all agree is our country’s defining tragedy, a calamity infinitely worse than 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and the War of Northern Aggression combined: that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a movie a lot of people were looking forward to, ended up being not as good as they had hoped. A thing a lot of people were excited about turned out to not even be OK. Plus, Jar Jar Binks. Yet despite spending 90 minutes lovingly prostrating itself before Lucas’s silly space nonsense for children, it has almost nothing to say about fandom, either as it relates to Star Wars or elsewhere.

“What if the movie sucks?”

Fanboys closes with one of the best lines ever uttered in a bad movie, a line so perfect it almost— but doesn’t quite—elevate the whole misbegotten enterprise. It’s part of that moment I mentioned, just before the lights go down and everyone holds a breath as they’re about to see the movie they’ve been dreaming about. Into that sacral moment the film’s worst, most obnoxious character (that would be Hutch) wonders aloud, “What if the movie sucks?”

If Fanboys had been imbued with this bittersweet understanding—that people can become deeply emotionally invested in something outside of themselves and their control, only to have it disappoint them and break their hearts in ways they can’t even articulate—then there’s a chance the film could have been the smart, tender, funny, and soulful sleeper fans thought they were protecting. Instead, six years later, when all seemingly anyone can talk about is how excited they are about the new Star Wars movie, it still feels wildly irrelevant and pointless. At least to anyone who’s not a fan.

Illustration by Max Fleishman