Legendary biblical archaeologist Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is nearly washed up. With the glory of his career firmly in the rear view of his mobile home/office, it becomes increasingly apparent that the audience for his ancient excavations has faded. Enter Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a preacher who contracts Don and his research assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) to excavate religious artifacts for his parish because these days people want proof with their Christianity. Teaming up with his Israeli associate Boaz (Jemaine Clement), Don soon realizes that people will believe just about anything he shows them from the desert can have religious significance if he is persuasive enough. After selling some white lies and misdirection to the eager and willing Christian community, the archaeologist soon finds that no secret can stay buried forever.
Directed by Jared Hess (Nacho Libre, Napoleon Dynamite), as well as co-written with his wife Jerusha, Don Verdean is the exact type of film one would expect from this creative team. It’s a bone dry, deadpan satire about the lives of people most of us would never in a million years want to switch places with. Thematically, the film revolves around the notion of faith and the relativity of truth; it’s a solid setup that ultimately never delivers because it’s too focused on the fact that Don is lying to people rather than the effect his lies have.
That’s not to say that the film’s increasingly farcical situations don’t entertain; the sheer absurdity and comedic darkness of Don’s schemes absolutely make for great comedy. I’m merely suggesting that the film’s overall thematic message has been neutered by the time the credits roll due to a reliance on a crackpot style that has become signature for the Hess couple over the years.
Don Verdean’s strongest asset comes in the form of its charismatic cast. Sam Rockwell deserves particular recognition for what he has done with his portrayal of Don Verdean, himself; the character’s initial impression on the audience comes across as sincere yet unlikeable, but as slowly becomes more and more desperate – and is subsequently forced to lie to protect himself – it’s hard not to feel sympathetic towards him. He’s essentially what would happen if elements of Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico were injected into a considerably less adept version of Indiana Jones. In the hands of a lesser actor, Don would have remained unlikeable from start to finish, but Rockwell manages to sell the character’s despondency in a way that at least makes his actions understandable. Jemaine Clement’s arc as Israeli national Boaz mirrors Don’s in that it shows how a lack of guilt over such lies can lead to the corruption of an initially likable character.
As for the rest of the ensemble, Amy Ryan serves as the film’s moral center, and a character that represents the religious members of the audience by showcasing the positive impact religion can have on one’s life. In terms of raw comedic chops, Danny McBride and Will Forte (who portrays a former Satanist born again preacher from a competing church) get the best lines of the movie, but the script is somewhat unbalanced and therefore never gives their characters enough to do that makes their contributions feel worthwhile. It’s unfortunate that the film does not find a way to make more time for these two contemporary comedic greats because their battle over who can draw in the bigger crowds – for which they insist is all about saving people’s souls – serves as one of the film’s best critiques about how modern religion can sometimes be more about spectacle than it is about the preaching of good moral values.
The biggest issue I have with Don Verdean is the fact that it ultimately takes a half-cocked approach to its subject matter in favor of throwing its characters into a series of insulated oddball situations. Genuinely interesting questions about the nature of faith are posited throughout the first half of the film, but then the focus detrimentally shifts away from the general public and more on Don, Boaz, and Carol. This is a shame because the most interesting moments of Don Verdean come when the film juxtaposes people with good religious faith with others who have turned religion into a commodity that requires proof – thereby eliminating the faith aspect of it altogether. In this way, Don Verdean actually becomes easily accessible to both the religious as well as the non-religious because it’s not satirizing religion itself; it is satirizing the misuse of religion for personal gain, and a stronger emphasis on that message would have improved the film.
Ultimatelym Don Verdean squanders some genuinely powerful and thought-provoking ideas in favor of an emphasis on deadpan comedy. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it leaves a definite impression that the creative team behind the film could have squeezed more out of the wonderful premise.