Movie Review: Van Der Merwe

Van der Merwe is a common Afrikaans surname that has become synonymous with a stereotypical Afrikaans character, usually a farmer named Koos, who has become the butt of a lineage of South African jokes dating back over 50 years. Decidedly “doff” and larger-than-life, van der Merwe jokes essentially took a similar stance to dumb blonde jokes, targeting a stereotype to berate and poke fun. Typically juvenile, ranging from one-liners to tall stories and dished out in English with a thick Afrikaans accent, “Van” jokes were generally heard in school playgrounds, sports clubs and local pubs. While somewhat subversive with Van constantly being the fall guy, they’re usually served up quite playfully with Van unwittingly coming out on top every now and then.

 Much like Ireland’s series of Paddy jokes, the humourous character has become part of the diverse fabric of South African culture, now embraced by the Afrikaans community. While fictional and tied to a bygone era, there’s still a feeling of nostalgia wrapped around stories about Van’s thick-cut disposition and inability to get ahead. The iconic “Van” character, probably inspired by classic British-Afrikaner rivalries, has managed to stay alive through oral tradition and even had a ‘100 Stories’ joke book published in 1976. Now more than 40 years later… he has his own self-titled film starring another “Van” in Rob van Vuuren.

While no one asked for a Van Der Merwe film, the screenplay has been in the pipeline since 2005 with Bill Flynn originally tagged to play the role. Leon Schuster’s box office numbers for Mr. Bones, Mr. Bones 2 and Mama Jack show there’s a market for silly family comedies led by larger-than-life characters. While Schuster’s films have traditionally dominated the local box office, he’s made a return to candid camera sketch-based stories in recent years. Having played an unofficial apprentice to Schuster in Schuks! Your Country Needs You after famously pranking the original prankster, van Vuuren was perfectly positioned to tackle the van der Merwe caricature.

Rob van Vuuren is a wonderfully talented and prolific South African actor and comedian, who has made a name for himself on TV, stage and film. His boundless energy, madcap antics, physicality and honesty have made him popular, yet one gets the impression that he’s been somewhat restrained in terms of casting, relegating him to a specific brand of comedy. While he’s injected more heart into his latest lead comedy role as the titular Van Der Merwe, it seems he’s still on the hunt for the perfect role. While van Vuuren’s never-say-die attitude makes this South African family comedy fun and mostly entertaining, it remains fairly artless, cheesy and half-baked.

Much like the caricature, Van has been endowed with a beer boep pregnancy and a bokkie… on his large forehead. The boep and manscaping are over-the-top, underlining an equally comical performance from van Vuuren, who is just as cartoonish as characters like Mr. Bean and Ace Ventura. Instead of tackling the legend of van der Merwe head-on, writer-director Bruce Lawley has decided to stretch the tryline by turning the film into a feel good family portrait. The large ensemble keep things fresh as new characters are continually introduced and Van tries to come to terms with the return of his prodigal daughter, Marike, and her new fiancé, George. Much of the comedy is derived from Anglo-Boer tensions and Van’s ill attempts to deal with his role as a father, son, brother, husband and boer.

It’s as though van der Merwe has been transplanted in Leading Lady and dipped into the character pool of Konfetti. Both South African “romcoms”, Leading Lady featured a similar quirky plot involving the outworkings of a cross-cultural romance on a farm, while Konfetti’s impressive line-up had a similar array of characters and comedy situations. While operating on a simpler tack, Van Der Merwe has managed to assemble a solid ensemble of supporting South African actors including: Ian Roberts, Reine Swart, Louw Venter and Erica Wessels with cameos from Greg Kriek, Neels van Jaarsveld and Barry Hilton. Matthew Baldwin, a dead ringer for Daniel Radcliffe, chimes in as George.

The screenplay manages to land a few clever van der Merwe moments in keeping with the character, but it’s mostly a comedy that happens to van der Merwe and his family. The chump humour isn’t as polished or priceless as Karl Pilkington’s quips in An Idiot Abroad, but remains lightly enjoyable with some unfortunate detours into toilet humour as we return to van Vuuren’s ridiculous kingpin performance. Just like Rowan Atkinson and Jim Carrey, the comic nature of van Vuuren’s performance may divide some audiences but as silly as it gets, he manages to keep one foot on the ground.

While this family comedy has its moments, the low-hanging fruit concept and thin source material make it a lightweight and frivolous affair. Jack Parow’s music is a good match for the tongue-in-cheek mix of South African nostalgia at play. His satirical theme song introduces us to the overriding tone of Van Der Merwe, but apart from toying with the premise that “my Dad’s a joke” and his spanner-in-the-works antics, it never manages to rise above its cartoon status. The “Van” character would probably work better on stage or in a sitcom. With missing pieces, underplayed supporting characters and inconsistencies in terms of production standards, this often cheesy and lightweight local family comedy is a fun distraction but struggles to leave a strong impression.

The bottom line: Half-baked