'Don Verdean': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A comedy with an identity crisis that's more quirky than actually comical

Jared Hess ('Napoleon Dynamite') returns to Sundance with this Biblical archeology-themed comedy starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan and Jemaine Clement.

Biblical archeology and satirical comedy make for uneasy bedfellows in Don Verdean, the fourth feature of director Jared Hess after the hits Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre and the more-strange-than-funny Gentlemen Broncos. Here too, there’s a sense that the goings-on are more quirky than comical as a self-described Biblical archeologist, played by Sam Rockwell, sets out to find the skull of Goliath -- the giant downed by a stone from little David’s sling -- at the request of a U.S. pastor hoping to draw a younger crowd with "hard evidence." Bought by Lionsgate before its Sundance premiere, this film should be closer to Broncos’ cheerless box-office numbers than the tens of millions made by Hess’s first two films, though perhaps some savvy marketing could somehow make a miracle happen and turn this into a minor, ahem, cult item.

Like Broncos, the funniest bit is placed right up front, with the opening consisting of a poor VHS-quality copy of a TV report about the recent excavational exploits of Donald Verdean (Rockwell) in the Middle East, where he managed to locate the Biblical Samson’s shears. For no good reason, the film proper kicks off 10 years later, when Don and his gullible assistant, Carol (Amy Ryan), tour from church to church to try and sell Don’s collection of books and DVDs about all the Biblical-era findings he’s (allegedly) unearthed. But people seem to be onto the charming and fast-thinking raconteur, as one member of the congregation produces a letter from the Israeli Antiquities Authority that states that no Verdean has ever done any type of archeological excavation in the country, which means that either Don’s lying or he should be arrested because he’s done all his digs without a permit. Like elsewhere in the film, the setup shows some promise but the actual execution lacks energy and enough solid laughs to make the scene really pop.

The plot is really kicked into motion when Don and Carol, the latter obviously and rather predictably pining for her employer, visit the Lazarus Fellowship run by Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride) and the pastor’s bride, Joylinda (a very game Leslie Bibb). This second odd couple met when she was a hooker and they were in a car accident together that he miraculously survived. Again, there’s some great potential here for quips as well as parallels to Biblical figures such as Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. But apart from a zinger about the only true place of religious relics (hint: It’s not in the Holy Land) and a chuckle-inducing song (written by the appropriately named duo Heavy Young Heathens), Hess and his co-writer, his wife Jerusha Hess, who are Utah-based Mormons, don’t push the material far enough to develop any comic momentum, let alone sustain it or find an opportunity to develop any kind of insightful satire of religion or at least charlatans who use religion for their own gains.

One of the film's few lines to get more than a chuckle involves someone being compared to "that whore from Les Miserables." This line wouldn't raise any eyebrow in most movies but is a rather unusual one here, as none of Hess's previous films contained any swear words. This concession isn't crucial to the (relative) success of the movie, though it does suggest how the Hesses might have been struggling to find the right tone for the material. Indeed, one of the film’s major problems is its ambivalence about the title character. Is Don a ruthless (and thus probably Godless) imposter hoping to either become famous or improve his station -- his rickety trailer is certainly ready for an upgrade -- or someone who, as the movie at times seems to suggest, actually cares about helping "someone get to heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise" via his fake artifacts that are in demand by churches everywhere? Even after Don's gone to Israel to fabricate a skull he can pass off as the head of Goliath and later gets involved with a Chinese Christian billionaire looking for the Holy Grail of Biblical artifacts in an Indian reservation, it's kind of hard to tell. The fact that the film sort just sort of peters out instead of coming to a rousing end doesn't help matters either.

What remains are the committed performances from Rockwell (also an executive producer, a position for which he hopefully got to take off that awful wig) and Ryan, who make for an appropriately oddball if very low-key pairing. Their understated elan is at direct odds with the manic energy of Rockwell’s Broncos co-star Jemaine Clement, who here stars as the heavily accented Boaz, Verdean’s often clueless Israeli connection who can’t tell the difference between male and female pillars of salt; has no qualms about adding some Al-Qaida operatives here and there to spice up a story and who would like to go on a date with the wholesome (and Christian) Carol. In a role that amounts to not much more than an extended cameo, an over-the-top Will Forte co-stars as a Satanist-turned-pastor who’s Lazarus’s biggest rival. 

The feature, which was partially shot in several churches in Utah (!), is otherwise competently assembled, with Ilan Eshkeri's varied score and Anne Auernig's costumes the below-the-line standouts. 

Production company: Buffalo Film Company

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Bibb, Stephen Park, Will Forte, Danny McBride

Director: Jared Hess

Screenplay:  Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess

Producers: Brandt Andersen, Dave Hunter, Jared Hess, Jason Hatfield

Executive producers: Sam Rockwell, Rick Lehman

Director of photography: Mattias Troelstrup

Production designer: Richard Wright

Costume designer: Anne Auernig

Editor: Tanner Christensen

Music: Ilan Eshkeri, Heavy Young Heathens

Casting: Meredith Tucker

 

No rating, 96 minutes

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