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Chris Hicks: 'Napoleon Dynamite' still defines Jon Heder's career

Several comic actors play wacky geeks in "When in Rome," and according to one national movie critic, "Jon Heder as a goofy street magician is the funniest of the bunch."

That comes from A.O. Scott in last Friday's New York Times review. And it may be faint praise in the context of this truly awful farce, especially since the rest of "the bunch" — Dax Shepard, Will Arnett and Danny DeVito — are so decidedly unfunny.

But it's nice to see Heder being singled out for a decent notice in the Newspaper of Record. Especially since, if you've only seen the trailer, you might not even realize Heder is in the movie.

The actor is, of course, a local favorite, thanks to "Napoleon Dynamite," which was co-written and directed by Salt Lake resident Jared Hess, and which in 2004 became one of the biggest hits to come out of that annual party in our own backyard, the Sundance Film Festival.

It was Heder's first feature film, immediately providing him with the kind of breakout role that actors who've been laboring in movies for decades would kill for.

Heder is also a local favorite because he's a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a rare commodity in Hollywood. In fact, a few years ago, he told USA Today, with a bit of chagrin, that he sometimes feels like an unofficial "ambassador" for Mormons because of his high profile.

That is not an easy mantle to bear, as any churchgoing LDS actor will tell you (as well as LDS Church members who labor in other fields of show business).

Let's face it, movies and TV shows today are generally so vulgar and sleazy that it's got to be tough to pick clean material that isn't merely pablum — acting roles that are challenging and juicy but don't wander into areas an LDS actor might prefer to avoid.

Over the years, I've heard stories from many LDS performers about how tough it is to maintain a moral compass when the offers start pouring in. And also about the heat that comes from some judgmental church members who don't approve of roles or shows in which LDS actors appear.

Which may explain the surprising number of successful movie and TV actors who have confessed in interviews that they were raised as Mormons but abandoned their faith somewhere along the way — including Aaron Eckhart, Eliza Dushku, Paul Walker, Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling, Emmy-winner Katherine Heigl and two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams.

Thanks to "Napoleon Dynamite," Heder may have surpassed them all in terms of sheer moviegoer notoriety. Whatever you may think of the film, from the day it premiered, "Napoleon Dynamite" took on a life of its own — one that has yet to fade away.

For Heder, this has to be a boon and a bane. Obviously, it gave him a career. But too many casting agents — and "Napoleon Dynamite" fans — must have a hard time seeing him as a different character.

As a result, since that film, he has played a variety of nerds and little else in "Blades of Glory," "The Benchwarmers," "Just Like Heaven," "Mama's Boy," "School for Scoundrels," his Web series "Woke Up Dead" and now "When in Rome."

Of course, "When in Rome" is a vehicle for Kristin Bell, with Heder playing just one of several comic dweebs who pursue her. It's a small supporting role, which requires him to stare at the ground a lot, with his long hair falling into his face as he performs cheesy magic tricks with wristwatches, playing cards and poker chips.

At one point, Heder is hanging upside-down, wrapped up like a mummy as he attempts to replicate a Houdini escape. And at the screening I attended, this sequence also got the film's biggest laugh — not from anything Heder does, but due to a surprise cameo aimed directly at "Napoleon Dynamite" fans.

Six years later, "Napoleon Dynamite" is still driving Heder's career.

Let's face it, 21st century romantic comedies are in a bad place right now. Especially clean comedies — such as "When in Rome" and Amy Adams' "Leap Year" — which are too bland to be funny.

A look at his profile on the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) suggests that Heder has a lot of irons in the fire (including a possible TV sitcom co-created by his "Blades of Glory" costar Will Ferrell). And he's still young and his career is still in its early stages.

So let's not only cross our fingers for Heder, that he chooses wisely, but also for the movie industry, that there will be wise choices out there to be made.

e-mail: hicks@desnews