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.
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