More than 10 years after Napoleon Dynamite, director Jared Hess (along with his co-screenwriter wife, Jerusha) has returned to Sundance with Don Verdean, a comedic near miss that has come to define the Hesses’ latter career. Their latest is about a funny-looking character with a funny name, and… well, it feels like the development process ended there.
These days, it’s fashionable to act like everyone was crazy for ever liking Napoleon Dynamite, but it was a hit for good reason. It was a new perspective in comedy, and comedy is always screaming for new perspectives. A Mormon husband-and-wife team from Kansas and Nebraska who make movies set in small-town Idaho, it seemed like a new brand of comedy (now with faux-wood siding!). Sure, Napoleon was much goofier and much less specifically about place than Alexander Payne’s plains films. But beyond the kitsch, it had that same uncool heartland realness that didn’t feel like a normcore put-on. And just as rare, Napoleon wasn’t just filmed improv, it had craft. Watch the opening credits again if you don’t believe me.
There’s a vulnerability to Napoleon Dynamite that’s missing in subsequent Hess films. Don Verdean, like Nacho Libre before it, is missing that crumb of reality that made Napoleon Dynamite more than just a dude in a zany t-shirt and silly haircut.
Sam Rockwell plays the title character, a “biblical treasure hunter,” a sort of self-made Indiana Jones who finds ancient artifacts proving that the Bible is real, to the delight of dowdy Christian flocks. Don’s contact in Israel, Boaz, played by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, has sent Don pictures of a salt pillar with breasts that Don believes is Lot’s wife. A pastor named Tony Lazarus (played by Danny McBride) bankrolls Verdean’s quest as a way to revive dwindling church attendance and has the salt pillar shipped over. Only when it gets there for the grand unveiling, the pillar has a penis. Har. “Maybe she was a hermaphrodite,” Don says. Double har.
Sam Rockwell, one of the most charming actors in Hollywood, gamely tries to keep his character grounded, but it’s just so kitschy that there’s nothing to attach it to. This character would’ve gotten a five minute vignette in Inherent Vice. It’s not that it’s impossible to make an over-the-top comedy with this little resemblance to real life, because it’s been done successfully – Dumb and Dumber, The Three Stooges. But if it’s going to be this unstuck from reality, it has to be a lot bigger, or else it’s just half-assed slapstick. There’s a reason the Three Stooges had to whack each other with oars and fill each other’s pants with snapping turtles. Don Verdean is sort of like if the Three Stooges just showed up in silly wigs and smirked at each other. Thanks, guys, that was great! Big round of applause, now I’m going to bring up Dana McGillicutty to play the theremin….
The only consistent source of comedy in Don Verdean is Jemaine Clement, who actually can be funny on cue, using nothing but an outfit and a silly accent, this sort of Israeli Schwarzenegger. There was one sublime moment in Don Verdean, where Clement’s character shows up in his red Pontiac Fiero, screeching to a halt, and as he switches off the keys, one of the pop-up headlights takes juuust a beat longer to fold down than the other one. It’s a brilliant, absurd little sight gag and a tantalizing reminder of what the Hesses are capable of when they’re on their game.
Mostly though, Don Verdean consists of committed actors desperately trying to ham up a script that never got further than silly costumes. It easily could have too. The climax of the film finds Verdean trying pass off a counterfeit “Goliath skull,” and when he’s caught in the lie by his disappointed assistant (Amy Ryan), he breaks down and admits he screwed up. Only… weren’t all his other “discoveries” varying degrees of fraud as well? The film opens with Don Verdean being accused of forgery, making you think it’s going to go there, and then weirdly confines his fraudulence to his final discovery. The script feels like it wants to be set in this world of Christians who need “proof” to bolster their faith, but never wants to examine it. The Hesses feel like they’re holding back, afraid of any satire that might cut too sharply and retreating into “here’s another character with a silly accent!”
Bummer. Or should I say “me so solly.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.