In his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman lays out what is essentially the unifying theory of Johnny Carson – the idea that the advent of cable and the home video market, not to mention the Internet, has splintered public tastes to the point that there’s no longer any such thing as a shared cultural experience anymore; according to Klosterman, the last patch of common ground was Johnny Carson, and once he disappeared from the airwaves, he took the last link in our pop culture chain with him.
Klosterman had a point, one which grows ever more relevant with each passing year – but every so often, a cultural event comes along with enough significance to achieve true water cooler status. Case in point: the long-awaited debut of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999, a breathlessly anticipated extension of a film franchise that was virtually inescapable in its day. When George Lucas announced he was working on a prequel trilogy that would fill in the story behind the original films, pretty much everyone was at least curious to see what they’d look like – and the hardcore fans were on pins and needles.
This is the setup behind Kyle Newman’s Fanboys, a road trip buddy comedy whose behind-the-scenes troubles grew to the point that it acquired a certain level of mythic status all its own, complete with angry calls for a Weinstein Company boycott after word leaked that studio chief Harvey Weinstein rewrote chunks of the script and ordered reshoots – and hired Steven Brill to direct them. In the end, Newman’s version survived mostly intact, and promptly reinforced the main lesson that Hollywood learned after Snakes on a Plane: namely, that Internet hype, no matter how loud it gets, doesn’t necessarily translate into actual box office receipts. Fanboys arrived to lukewarm reviews and mostly empty theaters – partly a victim of a typically lackluster TWC promotional campaign, and partly a result of its own utter just-okayness.
On paper, Fanboys looked nothing short of awesome. It’s 1998, six months before Phantom Menace‘s release, and five Ohio friends hatch a plot to drive out to George Lucas’ ranch in Northern California, bust in, and host an early screening. The kicker is that one of them is dying of cancer, and may not live to see it in theaters, which lends an unexpected bit of gravitas – and as if that weren’t enough, Newman obtained permission from Lucas to use vintage Star Wars sound effects, and wormed cameos out of a long list of famous names, both franchise-related (Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams) and not (Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, Craig Robinson, Kevin Smith). Reading all that, you can see why the Fanboys fanboys felt such an attachment to it, and were so pissed off when they heard that Weinstein wanted to axe the cancer subplot.
In reality, however, Fanboys isn’t much more than your average road trip comedy – emphasis on the average part – with the small difference that it stops to make a Star Wars gag or reference every few minutes. Some of them are clever; Carrie Fisher’s big line, for instance, is a hoot. But for the most part, they’re just obvious and sort of lame, like the shot of the gang’s van after it barrels through a highway billboard (going “hyperdrive,” no less), leaving a Darth Vader-shaped hole with the camera positioned just high enough to make the tail lights look like his eyes. (Cue Vader sound effect.) You have to commend the cast, particularly Fogler, for giving these parts their all – Bell even wears the Leia slave outfit – but they don’t have much to work with; the Star Wars references aren’t arcane enough to interest actual fanboys, and the gags aren’t funny enough to hold water with average moviegoers. It’s innocuous enough, in a television movie sort of way, but in the era of destigmatized direct-to-video productions, there was never any reason for Fanboys to show up in theaters.
If you saw it and loved it, however, good news: the Fanboys DVD comes with plenty of extras, from the unexpectedly entertaining (the audio commentary track, featuring various members of the cast and crew) to the predictably inessential (deleted scenes). You get a number of featurettes, including “The Truth About Fanboys,” in which Newman and the cast awkwardly explain what a fanboy is, along with “The Star Wars Parallel,” “4 Fanboys & 1 Fangirl,” and “The Choreography.” The DVD also packs in a series of promotional webisodes, leaving you with pretty much everything you ever needed to see or hear about the movie, all in one convenient package.
Do you need to own it? Almost certainly not, unless you’re a rabid Star Wars completist or related to someone who worked on it. If you grew up on Star Wars, though, and you’ve got a free afternoon to kill, you may get a few chuckles out of seeing it on TV. Keep your expectations low, and may the Force be with you. -Jeff Giles
Fanboys (The Weinstein Company, 2008)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Christopher Marquette, Kristen Bell
Director: Kyle Newman