Fanboys, director Kyle Newman's debut feature, may be an ode to the ways in which the Star Wars franchise has permeated society, but it's ironically more similar in spirit to American Graffiti, an earlier George Lucas classic. Released in 1973, American Graffiti helped popularize the modern notion of nostalgia in its story of high school seniors attempting to figure out their lives in 1962. Newman's film similarly takes a nostalgic look 11 years in the past: the year 1998, days before the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Given the film's purposely self-aware nature, it's hard to believe that the theme and dates are coincidental.
Set in suburban Ohio, Fanboys centers around a group of twenty-somethings, who, despite being years out of high school, have yet to figure out their lives -- apart from, of course, an obsessive devotion to the original Star Wars trilogy. Early on, Eric (Sam Huntington) decides to leave the comic geek life and work in his father's car dealership. His comic book shop friends, however, have not “grown up”: Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in his mother's garage; Windows (Jay Baruchel) cannot connect with women outside of the internet; and Linus (Christopher Marquette) has still not forgiven Eric for abandoning their group -- for him, it's as if Han Solo had taken his reward money at the end of the first movie and flown off into the sunsets. And, of course, there's Zoe (Kristen Bell), the inexplicably cute girl who hangs out with them.
For a while, the film actually works pretty well as an examination of suburban life circa 1998, with some “period” details sure to connect with its intended audience -- an early scene where the characters play Mario Kart for the Nintendo 64 brought back memories -- as well as some wry social observations (e.g. a character's frustration at party decorations draped in a doorway). However, after Eric discovers Linus is dying, Newman abandons the more natural American Graffiti narrative for the forced (no pun intended) adventures of the Star Wars films, sending his heroes on a road trip to break into George Lucas' ranch to watch Episode I before its theatrical release.
The film quickly devolves into a series of road trip clichés: pretty girls who are easily picked up in Las Vegas turn out to be hookers; Windows' online girlfriend is not who she claims to be; and the characters even wind-up in a small-town prison. Inside jokes and casting gimmicks abound, but rather than creating a clever, self-referential tableau, they feel worn and tired. By the time Kevin Smith appears in a cameo as himself, along with collaborator Jason Mewes, we're only reminded of how Smith's films were more effective with similar material.
While hardcore Star Wars fans with dogeared copies of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces may enjoy matching up the various misadventures with their counterparts in the mythological heroic narrative, any actual character development is pretty much glossed over, leaving us with something that feels like Judd Apatow-lite. And unlike Lucas with American Graffiti, Newman fails to use an intensely media-saturated period of time to say anything meaningful about our relationship with media and its increasing role in our daily lives.