Sundance Review: Don Verdean
Jared Hess is and always has been, an acquired taste. His first film, Napoleon Dynamite was a smashing cult hit featuring randomly humorous characters and various quotable lines...which distracted a lot of people from the fact that the movie didn't actually have a plot. His subsequent films also have become more focused in terms of plot, but still, have a tendency to meander. I enjoyed Nacho Libre...but found Gentlemen Broncos to be horrendous. After that horrible film, Hess needed a while to recuperate.... which I suppose is what he's been doing the last five years (though his wife directed Austenland in the interim.) I was hopeful that the break did him good.. but a little anxious. Our tickets were for the end of the festival and the reviews that came out to help give me a sense of the film were far from glowing. One list said that Don Verdean was the second-worst film of the festival! Ouch. There went any expectations I had.
So where did it fall on the scale of Napolean Dynamite to Gentlemen Broncos? After all this film reteams the Broncos cast of Sam Rockwell & Jemaine Clement (both of whom I love and was shocked when I hated Broncos so much) so that wasn't an encouraging sign right? Well here's the thing. Don Verdean is a movie made for Utahns, by Utahns in Utah. And as a Utahn, I could help but find myself chuckling frequently and smiling often. The thing is when you get an inside joke.. you can't help but appreciate it even if you know it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Such is the case with Don Verdean. It's a quirky, silly movie... but after a lot of the more serious content I've been watching over the last week, it was kind of refreshing.
Don Verdean probably won't have the lasting power or impact of Napoleon Dynamite, but for a comedy nowadays you could do a lot worse! In fact, I'd argue that Don Verdean is his most accessible film to date. It has a simple premise (religious archaeologist faces a moral dilemma,) but unlike his other works, more exploring of the initial concept happens (and yes even a structured plot occurs!) Don Verdean also has a great cast! Joining Rockwell and Clement are Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb, and Will Forte. All turn in good work, but Ryan in particular as the mousy dedicated Christian servant to Rockwell's Verdean is wonderful. Like his other films, this movie is simply not for everyone (I'm not sure what his fascination is with making everyone look like they live in a time capsule).. and in this case, especially the uber-sensitive might take offense at some of the jabs here. No ethnicity, in particular, is portrayed in a glowing light and that does not exclude Americans. These characters may all, in fact, be caricatures, but at least they're amusing caricatures to watch! Just don't take it too seriously and you'll be fine. RATING: 7/10