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'Fanboys' seek new hope on road to Lucas

The Baltimore Sun

At its funniest, Fanboys, the far-fetched tale of five Ohio Star Wars fans who, in 1998, storm George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to steal a working print of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, depicts the clash between Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans as the nerd equivalent of Crips and Bloods. They hate each other on sight and glory in pathetic pitched battles. They exult in the illusion of danger otherwise absent from their bland suburban lives.

Fandom in Fanboys offers peer-group power surges to guys who may never grow up. The fever of fandom in this movie is like that of an adolescent crush. They sublimate their sexuality into outlandish costumes with codpieces and extravagant make-believe with laser swords.

The most appealing aspect of the movie is that the guys and gal at the center of it don't just love the Star Wars saga for its own sake. They love the way they feel about each other when they're escaping into its universe and sharing all the wonder and the trivia. They're in their early 20s, and they haven't lost that communal warmth. When the film is working (roughly half the time), you feel it, too.

The movie suffers from a terrible sentimental stroke right at its core: One friend has terminal cancer. His illness catalyzes the journey and brings an estranged friend back into the fold. Director Kyle Newman seems so embarrassed by this subplot, he drops it for 15 minutes at a time. What's more, the road-comedy gags sometimes hit potholes, and I'm not referring to the amusing segment with the peyote-toting shaman known as The Chief (Danny Trejo).

Nothing in this film is as scathing or hilarious as the assault launched by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on the costumed maniacs who thronged for The Phantom Menace's New York premiere. (Triumph asked the immortal question, "How are you going to explain this to your imaginary girlfriend?") But Fanboys ambles along on a decent sprinkling of chuckles. The tide of in-jokes are funny whether you get them or not because the real humor lies in how they reflect a fraternal code.

The movie could have suggested more individual (and less predictable) reasons for each friend buying into Star Wars mythology. Eric (Sam Huntington) and Linus (Chris Marquette) fostered fantasies of becoming comic-book creators; now Eric works at his dad's auto dealership, and Linus confronts cancer. Hutch (Dan Fogler), Windows (Jay Baruchel) and Zoe (Kristen Bell), a female geek who is sexier than any of the "hotties" the boys meet along the way, work at a comic-book store.

While living in his mom's garage ("carriage house," he insists), Hutch dreams of starting an auto-detailing business. The bespectacled Windows, whose true best friend is his omnipresent Toughbook, lives entirely through online fantasy (including an Internet courtship with a girl who is supposedly a cross between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Janeane Garofalo). Zoe waits for Windows to notice her, while Hutch keeps trying to use Jedi mind-control to get her to disrobe.

Fogler's Hutch comes off as a poor man's Jack Black, amusing in his wild-eyed bravado. Baruchel plays the near-sighted geek almost too well. Huntington and Marquette bring little to the party; they're diffident performers who meld into each other. The funniest actor is Bell, less because of her pert, fed-up deliveries than the way she echoes the spunky, curvy tomboys of Lucas and Spielberg epics circa 1975 to 1983. Indeed, the whole movie is most surprising when it flirts with outright parody, as when Windows pours his heart out to a woman he thinks is a casino pickup. They send up pivotal scenes in every clueless-guy movie.

As the gang nears its destination, the movie keeps leaping into fantasy with mixed results. (The film's wish-fulfillment version of Skywalker Ranch, for example, contains a sci-fi inner sanctum and security guards resembling the black-clad, silver-faced cops from THX 1138.) Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had no choice. If their heroes faced failure, director Newman and his screenwriters would have had to boldly go where no filmmakers had ever gone before. They would have had to show fanboys becoming fan men.

Fanboys ** 1/2 (2 1.2 STARS)

(The Weinstein Company) Starring Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell. Directed by Kyle Newman. Rated PG-13 for pervasive crude and sexual material, language and drug content. Time 90 minutes.

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