Pop culture works within the larger culture in strange, unpredictable ways. Some pop-culture phenomena “ take break dancing, for example “ go the way of the blue suede shoe in a matter of months. Others, like science fiction, cross generations, growing roots in a way that defies expectations and logic.
It’s difficult to explain the spread of geek culture, an umbrella term used to describe those who obsess over “Dungeons & Dragons,” comic books, LARPing, cosplay, “The Legend of Zelda,” dinosaurs, “Voltron,” “Mega Man” and many other pop-culture artifacts and combinations thereof. It’s highly unlikely that people alive during the 1920s and 1930s “ the heyday of the pulp magazines, comic books and cinema serials that fathered the modern geek universe “ could have guessed how far and deeply the pop culture of their day would propagate into the future.
“Fanboys,” a short and sweet movie about friendship and the alienating call of conventional adulthood, uses geek culture for its framework. Set in 1998, six months before the release of “Star Wars: Episode I “ The Phantom Menace,” the story centers on Eric (Sam Huntington, “Superman Returns”) who is a “Star Wars” fanatic in denial. Eric spent his childhood trying to create working lightsabers and writing comic books with his best friend, Linus (Chris Marquette, “Race to Witch Mountain”), only to give it all up to work at a car lot. By contrast, Linus and his pals Windows (Jay Baruchel, “Tropic Thunder”) and Hutch (Dan Fogler, “Kung Fu Panda”) keep the faith at Windows’ comic book shop, which pays just enough to keep them in macaroni and Mountain Dew.
When the story opens, Linus is still pissed off at Eric for selling out. What brings Eric back to the fold is news that Linus is dying of cancer. Eric, Windows and Hutch decide to fulfill their childhood dream of breaking into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, where they will steal a rough cut of “The Phantom Menace” for Linus, who likely won’t live to see its official release.
What follows is a fairly standard road movie, reminiscent of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “The Sure Thing” and “Road Trip.” The group sets out in Hutch’s van, which is filled with the prog-rock sound of Rush and the atmosphere of permanent sexual frustration.
As with many road movies, “Fanboys” isn’t driven (ha-ha) by a plot so much as a series of situations, relying on cameos from minor players in the “Star Wars” franchise, notable geeks from the celebrity community, and a goodish amount of help from Seth Rogen (“Observe and Report”). The inclusion of Rogen and Baruchel imply some sort of Judd Apatow connection, although his name isn’t directly associated with the movie. Still, “Fanboys” benefits from the same comic charms.
At the same time, the film relies too heavily on the premise that geeking out over “Star Wars” is somehow unusual, or even deviant, like an act of rebellion. The characters are good-natured enough, but they refuse to interact with society in any constructive way at all. This is somehow chalked up to the fact that the world doesn’t “get” geeks, rather than the fact that the geeks might just want to avoid any actual responsibility or work.
In some ways, the end of the movie hints at this, but it wastes an opportunity to fully draw a distinction between embracing geekdom for constructive purposes and simply extending one’s childhood well beyond its shelf life out of laziness. The cancer theme is downplayed in favor of physical hilarity with only a few shallow moments sprinkled in to remind us something serious is going on among the hooker jokes and mugging cameo appearances.
This could be because “Fanboys” existed originally as a film-festival short. It garnered buzz a few years back, and some studio suits took an interest. Rumor has it that they didn’t like the cancer premise at all, and wanted the filmmakers to drop it entirely for a more traditional road movie. If that’s true, then someone pushed back, but not enough.
What we wind up with in the finished version is a compromise that’s almost like a cross between “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Dying Young,” with “Dying Young” shuffling behind the van, trying desperately to keep up.
“Fanboys” is entertaining but uneven, and one gets the feeling that the premise was too far outside recognized genre templates for the studio guys to really get it. It’s possible it would have taken only another 10 or 15 minutes of the characters dealing with the movie’s “dark” side to give the story depth.