In the past two weeks, I’ve found myself feeling something I thought I’d never feel again: excitement for a new Star Wars movie. With the release of the newest trailer, I have been cruising at maximum Star Wars hype, a feeling I have a deep fear will be whisked away again. Obviously, this rekindling of unexpected emotions called for a revisit of the best (only) comedy about Star Wars hype: 2009’s Fanboys.
The plot: In the distant past of 1998, reformed Star Wars nerd and current used car salesman Eric (Sam Huntington) is reunited with his former gang of obsessives Hutch (Dan Fogler), Windows (Jay Baruchel), Zoe (Kristen Bell), and estranged best friend Linus (Chris Marquette), who has been diagnosed with cancer and has only months to live. Looking to make peace with his former best friend before it’s too late, Eric devises a final road trip with his old crew: a trip to California to break into Skywalker Ranch and steal a copy of Star Wars Episode I. Released in 2009 with limited distribution, Fanboys already feels like it belongs in another era. Coming out a few years too soon before the culmination of and 90s nostalgia and the mainstreaming and hyper-commodification of “geek culture”, but just late enough in the 2000s to have not one, not two, but three Seth Rogen cameos, Fanboys failed to live up to its considerable hype, and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s easy to understand why. The thing about Fanboys is that it’s not a profoundly original film. Just as the Star Wars films fishes from a well of Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey archetypes, old comic strips, and Ford and Kurosawa films, Fanboys is pulling from a well of road trip movie archetypes*, some of which have aged better than others. Here there be desert drug freak-outs, run-ins with cops, and Vegas mayhem which are given their own nerdy spin with varying mileage. This, shockingly, isn’t the first road trip film to feature peyote-fueled interlude, but it’s probably the only one that features Ewoks and Danny Trejo. Some of these moments are incredibly solid bits of comedy, while others don’t stick a landing. The problem is it doesn’t do enough of its cliche moments distinctly enough to justify them, nor does it use its nerdy protagonists to skewer them enough as to be considered parody.
The key to Fanboys charm, if not its originality, is its geeky spirit. A deep appreciation for the original Star Wars movies surrounds the film and penetrates it, and is truthfully what binds this film together. As is probably obvious to regular readers of my column, geek and nerd identity is something that fascinates me and with which I’ve had my own tumultuous relationship. Since its entered the lexicon roughly sixty years ago, its come to mean different things and conjure up conflicting images in the past decade. Many of these images of nerddom, easily recognizable in my own life, make up the cast of the film: Windows– played to nebbish perfection by the 21st centuries prince of neb Jay Baruchel– as the classic, socially awkward four-eyed nerd, Hutch as the insecure nerd ineffectually masquerading as a badass, Zoe, the female fan in an environment at times toxically dudecentric, Eric, who attempts to distance himself from the the geek stigma, and Linus as the dedicated fan so often hurt by those sorts of decisions. Surprising care is put into crafting these convenient, if inexact archetypes into humans, and this is largely accomplished by selling the viewer on their passion for Star Wars. These are dudes (and lady) brought together by shared cultural experience who are able to find a meaningful connection to each other in pantomiming lightsaber battles and knowing the names of obscure planets in SW lore and that connection feels real. I buy into this being a ragtag group of outsiders brought together in childhood by a movie trilogy. It’s what makes the central plot of Eric and Linus’s drifting apart and reconciliation affecting. That drifting apart is the story of many a geek and one that is not explored that much in cinema (within the limits that geek culture is actually explored in cinema in any meaningful way at all). It’s a somewhat shallow comedy, but one loaded with some real emotion and earnest love for its subject which is what I imagine endeared the film to the innumerable geek celebrities (including Carrie Fisher and Sir Billy Dee Wiliams) who make cameos throughout.
So obviously, if you’re not a Star Wars fan, you will get decidedly less from Fanboys. It paints a romanticized picture of a pre-prequel fan culture (and weirdly of 1998) and posits a rivalry with Trekkies that doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s an article for another day. It is a dense paean to the franchise aimed squarely at the fan at the expense of others. Yet, it’s passion and unflappable celebration of the communal power of a shared cultural force– be it Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, or, hell, The West Wing— will be recognizable to anyone whose ever geeked out over a movie, book, or TV show. Fanboys is a love letter to Star Wars and that broad, ill defined concept of geek culture. Like a lot of love letters, its language and allusions are a bit cliched, but its emotions and the intent are sweetly sincere.
*including some of the ones found in the KISS fan road trip film Detroit Rock City, which also stars Huntington, which I and like five other people have probably ever seen. seen.