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posted on 2020-10-25 16:15:00 .
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John Bronco—Hulu’s new sub-40-minute mockumentary about a “lost” “Ford pitchman”—is a good idea, well-executed. What if you took the competent-idiot Southern charm of Justified‘s Boyd Crowder, but, instead of an Appalachian criminal, made the character the unlikely pitchman for a beloved classic SUV, who oozes over-the-top marketable machismo a la the Marlboro Man? And… what if you can get Walton Goggins himself to play the S.O.B? To call that comedic premise excellent, well, “It’d be like saying, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is just margarine…’ which I guess it is,” as one interviewee describes Bronco.
In case the title alone doesn’t explain the premise: sometime around the 1960s, Ford had a rugged SUV, called the Bronco, lined up for the masses. But it needed a way to sell this new contraption. The company decided it would enter a prototype of the vehicle in the Baja 1000, a famed off-road race. It needed someone tough enough to handle this beast of a vehicle and course, so it sought out whoever seemed to be the most rugged guy in the region—a rodeo champ named John Bronco. John Bronco chronicles the (to be clear, fictional) man’s rise, fall, and disappearance before trying to figure out where the legendary ad icon is now.
The team behind John Bronco—Director Jake Szymanski (HBO’s Tour de Pharmacy) and producer Marc Gilbar—started on the idea in 2019 but ultimately timed the project for maximum impact when they learned Ford had real-life plans to relaunch the iconic Bronco late this summer. According to The Ringer, the team met directly with Ford and earned access to the company’s marketing archives, which get mined thoroughly for aesthetic and pseudo-accuracy in the film. For instance: if you, too, were also born after the mid-1980s, maybe it’d be surprising to learn Doug Flutie had enough of a Q score to actually hawk cars for Ford in 1985 (though the original ad does not seem to end in tragedy).
You don’t need to know anything about cars, let alone Ford, to enjoy John Bronco, but the creative team naturally has a few of what comedian Joe Mande calls “10 percenters“—jokes only 10 percent of viewers may get, but those viewers will be obsessed. Cars Technica Editor Jonathan Gitlin’s mileage will no doubt be better than mine, but simply editing his coverage on site over the years allowed me to get ample amusement out of things like an extended Lee Iacocca bit.
Like Documentary Now or American Vandal, this thing sings because it adheres to the rules and established style of genuine documentaries. Production-wise, Szymanski just let the cameras roll, both to capture potentially usable b-roll and to encourage loads of improvised hilarity during interviews. On screen, John Bronco relies on the familiar “where are they now?” and “price of fame” narrative arcs of so many Hollywood documentaries about individuals. The filmmakers insert themselves into the film Serial-style and actively take up the quest to find Bronco at one point. And all the interviewee archetypes you’d expect—former managers, old lovers, archivists with subject-matter expertise—chew up ample screen time. Former SNL cast member Tim Meadows as Bronco’s manager and Tim Baltz (Righteous Gemstones) as a Ford archivist headline a cast that is extremely up for approaching this silly premise with the right amount of serious absurdity.
My favorite film trait is that no bit of minutiae proves to be too minute for it to be relevant in building up Bronco’s legend. In this last regard, John Bronco shares some comedic DNA with the also recently debuted HBO mockumentary series, How To with John Wilson. Expect some extremely niche but hilarious digressions that, although quite ridiculous in the end, have been arrived at logically and effortlessly. (If some indie game developer sees this film and doesn’t recreate the 8-bit video game John Bronco once lent his name to, we’ve all lost.)
Reviewing comedies will always be an impossible task. Many things in life are subjective, yet perhaps none as much as what a person finds “funny.” But I’ve been thinking about “never aired” early ’90s Bronco ads and aptronyms and giggling to myself quite regularly after catching this tight, consistently amusing short film on Hulu last week. Another high-profile comedic faux-documentary released recently will be garnering all the headlines, but if judging by laughs, John Bronco could turn out to be the comedy of the year.
Listing image by Hulu
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