Shot three years ago and soon after became the bruised victim of a heated post-production war that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, the comedy “Fanboys” finally emerges from Harvey Weinstein’s dust-laden vault to placate the faithful who hoped (and eventually kicked and screamed) to one day enjoy this carousel of “Star Wars” references and male bonding humor on their own. The war is over, the movie is available in some form to the general public, and the natural response after viewing? The film wasn’t worth all the fuss it generated.
The year is 1998, and for “Star Wars” loyalists Windows (Jay Baruchel), Linus (Chris Marquette), and Hutch (Dan Fogler), the feverish countdown to the release of “The Phantom Menace” has begun, trumping all other endeavors, including women (Kristen Bell) and maturity. When Eric (Sam Huntington), an estranged childhood friend, reenters their life after years building a car salesman reputation, he provokes feelings of resentment and abandonment. However, when it’s revealed that Linus is quickly dying of cancer, the boys set aside their differences and set out to accomplish an impossible goal: to infiltrate George Lucas’s San Francisco lair and steal a copy of the new “Star Wars” film for Linus to watch. Setting off in a rusted van, the guys travel across the country gathering Lucasfilm security tips, fighting with Trekkies, and reigniting old chemistry.
It’s difficult to gauge the true quality of “Fanboys” in its current editorial shape. Passed through more hands than the Stanley Cup, the film is a worrisome jumble of a movie, burdened with strangely unfocused attempts at slapstick and sentimentality. Kyle Newman is billed as the film’s director, but it’s a mystery just how much of a singular vision survived the film’s torturous journey to release. As it stands, “Fanboys” is only a halfway amusing pass at Lucas worship and standard road movie shenanigans, with most of the picture stuck in the mud of tonal indecision and performance inconsistency.
It’s best to receive “Fanboys” as a loving ode to the adventure of geekdom, and how pure the feeling of “Star Wars” idolatry was in 1998, before the Jedi nation was forever divided upon the release of “The Phantom Menace.” “Fanboys” embraces the suffocating nostalgia well, but the movie has difficulty obtaining subtle jokes to tell. Most of the screenwriting shuns wit and sly delivery to pour gasoline on comedic subjects and set them ablaze just so the gags will be noticed. It’s a strained perspective that renders the film a chain of winces rather than giggles, starting with a Friedberg/Seltzeresque “Star Wars” opening scroll parody and soon extending to heavily underlined celebrity cameos and cutesy 1998 technology references. “Fanboys” means well enough and remains reasonably lighthearted, but the humor is too self-aware and Newman is much too willing to indulge the real cancer of the film: Fogler. His nonstop screech and horrifying, Broadway-encouraged energy is nearly enough to give up on the film altogether.
Oddly, the only real source of hilarity emerges from Seth Rogen, here playing the two roles: a Trekkie leader who detests “Star Wars” nerds and a pimp who complicates a detour to Las Vegas to scope out extra info. Rogen sneaks in some freshness to the stale happenings and remains the only cast member able to balance broad farce (his Trekkie makeup consists of buck teeth, a Starfleet outfit, and acne) with cutting one-liners seemingly from his own cache of humor, wisely avoiding the trenches of the screenplay. Actually, the “Star Trek” vs. “Star Wars” subplot is the film’s finest touch, permitting the material to slap around known rivalries for laughs, add some comedic violence, and step away from tired wink-happy nonsense that habitually sours the premeditated merriment.
As for the much debated, much recut cancer subplot that supposedly drives the emotional core of the film, I’m not buying it. Haphazardly dropped in and out of the movie when the story aches for some unearned profundity, Linus’s death sentence is crude gimmick that holds no organic place in the story. Whether this illness foundation was always highlighted in the film randomly or the subplot was distorted beyond recognition through editorial tinkering is a question for the production to answer. All I have to go with is the finished film, and there the cancer angle is a ploy to legitimize some aggressive monkey business with wildly uncomfortable bouts of solemnity.
“Fanboys” does manage to isolate one perfect emotion before it concludes: anticipation. Take away the plentiful George Lucas filmography references, formulaic maturity character arcs, and whiplash turns of emotion, and what’s left behind is community eagerness; the wondrous plastic-lightsaber, multiplex-campsite thrill to cheer on a new “Star Wars” picture. Newman undercuts the magic with a snarky last-minute jab at the quality of “Phantom Menace,” but even his erratic filmmaking hand cannot tarnish the evocative feeling of 1998/99, in which die-hard geeks ruled the world for a brief, beautiful moment and Dan Fogler wasn’t yet available to ruin mainstream feature films.