Director Jared Hess and his co-writer wife Jerusha Hess debuted in the spotlight with Napoleon Dynamite, and made audiences chuckle with their lower rung follow-up Nacho Libre. I speak as someone who missed their critically maimed third endeavour Gentlemen Broncos, but I really enjoy watching whatever these two make.
They inspired fellow independent filmmakers into mimic their style, but the Hess’ have a brand of humour is hard to copy. They seem to be interested in telling tall tales through the eyes of blunt, common outsiders. Napoleon Dynamite bragged to bullies about mystical game hunting, his uncle couldn’t stop talking about his superhuman strength when tossing a pigskin, and luchador wrestler Ignacio created a tough alter ego named “Nacho”. They bring out the absurd through sincere voices, which makes for amusingly bizarre results.
The Hess’ latest film Don Verdean insert that inclination to tell tall tales within religious and journalistic satire, as well as in an unexpected life of crime. Sam Rockwell plays Verdean, an archaeologist set to find biblical treasures. His discoveries have made jaws drop, and helped create a faithful following. His popularity hooks a devout congregation couple (Danny McBride and Leslie Bibb giving impressive understated performances) and help Verdean fund his future missions. A skeptical competitor from a nearby church (Will Forte) goes about his nosy ways as Don prepares to find Goliath’s skull.
Truth is embellished when Verdean gets desperate, and stages a groundbreaking recover. Everyone is fooled, Don tries to forget about it, and his expedition partner Boaz (played by a wickedly funny Jemaine Clement) wants to raise the stakes as he strives for a real American lifestyle.
Don Verdean is frequently funny, offering quotable dialogue and awkward situational humour. However, this is the first time where I sense hesitation in Jared Hess’ execution. He hits his targets with soft taps, and gives off the impression that he’s afraid to offend. The light brush strokes fit the Hess’ usual idiosyncratic characterization, but the cartoonish roasting makes the religiously devout look ridiculously – and unconstructively – gullible.
When the filmmakers send Don and Boaz into a dishonest caper, Don Verdean really hits its prime stride. It’s arguable that Jared Hess offers more of the same direction we’re used to (Clement plays a typical sidekick we’ve seen before in the filmmaker’s previous work), but it’s a set-up that is able to generate successful results – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t worry though, the changes made to the story give the film a different type of presentation.
While Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre gave audiences eccentric gags in short spurts, Don Verdean goes for a more longterm version of the screwball comedy the filmmakers are known for. Some writers and directors need to grow within their craft to find where they stand in the industry. For Jared and Jerusha Hess, they’re best suited for this sort of comedy, and they find ways to evolve while staying perfectly still in Don Verdean.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie