Don Verdean

Don Verdean

2015, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Jared Hess. Starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Danny McBride, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb, Stephen Park, Sky Elobar.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 11, 2015

An interesting premise gets waylaid in this fourth feature comedy by Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband-and-wife creative team (Jared directs, they both co-write) who scored big in 2004 with their debut film, Napoleon Dynamite. Don Verdean follows in the comedic footsteps of their previous films (which also include Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos), which take a low-key approach to oddball characters who never quite seem to be in on the fact that they are the joke. The religious charlatans who are the primary characters in Don Verdean are ripe for comic deflation, but the film’s unsteady tone has no discernible target.

Sam Rockwell, who is also an executive producer, plays biblical archaeologist Don Verdean, who unearths relics in the Israeli desert and presents them to the faithful as proof that their beliefs have foundations. He seems to know that most of the objects are phony – especially later in the story when he actively fabricates his finds – but justifies his endeavors as acts that help the deserving get into heaven. Sporting a bad wig and mush-mouthed Southern accent, Rockwell’s Verdean remains a mystery man whose motives we never quite understand. His adoring assistant Carol Jensen (Ryan) plays the film’s only likable and true-hearted character. Verdean becomes involved with megachurch pastor Tony Lazarus (McBride), who wants Verdean to find Goliath’s skull in order to prop up his parishioners’ faith. As in past digs, Verdean is helped by his unscrupulous Israeli assistant Boaz (Clement, speaking with a ridiculous accent). Will Forte plays Lazarus’ primary rival Pastor Fontaine, a former Satanist.

Some generally witty lines (Lazarus’ ex-hooker girlfriend Joylinda, played by Bibb, gets the best one about creating a Holy Land here in the States, where it belongs) are trampled by many more that are neither clever nor funny. Halfway through, the film loses its way, and starts swinging wildly, throwing more story strands into the mix (a Chinese billionaire, al Qaeda) and further dilutes whatever goodwill the film had set up at the start. Religious idolatry is never skewered, and the film’s story and characters flatline, despite the talented actors’ efforts. Don Verdean, which premiered at Sundance 2014, should remain a buried artifact.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Jared Hess Films
Heist comedy stars Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, and Kristin Wiig

Steve Davis, Oct. 7, 2016

Gentlemen Broncos
With this new film, Jared Hess elicits none of the naive charm or flagrant silliness of his earlier movies, Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 6, 2009

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
All That Breathes
The struggle by three men to save the endangered black kite

March 31, 2023

SXSW Film Review: <i>Joy Ride</i>
Film Review: Joy Ride
Groundbreaking comedy doesn't break the raunchy mold

March 19, 2023


Don Verdean, Jared Hess, Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Danny McBride, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb, Stephen Park, Sky Elobar

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle