Sundance 2015: ‘Don Verdean’ a well-intentioned comedy that plays it too safe

Sam Rockwell and Jermaine Clement in Don Verdean
Sam Rockwell and Jermaine Clement in Don Verdean

Don Verdean
Written by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess
Directed by Jared Hess
USA, 2015

The wife and husband duo behind Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos gives us Don Verdean, a relatively tame exploration into the antics of biblical archaeology. The subject matter is rife with comedic possibilities but the film doesn’t go big enough with its shenanigans to see us through to being truly entertained. There are sporadic moments of inspiration, but they are too few and far in between to save it from itself. Not much is skewered about religion, instead broadly-drawn zealots populate the plot who desperately want to believe that discoveries abound which could validate biblical stories. The religious extremism doesn’t go far enough, as if it’s afraid of offending its audience. It seems satisfied to keep it mild and barely tongue-in-cheek. A rocking gospel soundtrack and peculiar side characters lift the hijinks, but not enough to make it a memorable affair.

Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a man who built his career on finding biblical relics to unite people with the truth and encourage them to part with their money. Boaz (Jermaine Clement) does the dirty work for him, searching all over the Holy Land for objects that more or less approximate the real deal. Both men justify their actions with the surge of faith and money that ensues after a discovery.

Don Verdean is missing an element of endearment that Napolean Dynamite used to buoy its bizarre, socially inept protagonist. None of the characters allow you to root for them, as their goals are so vain and transparent. Only Amy Ryan, as Verdean’s sadly smitten assistant, is sympathetic as Verdean slips from an ambitious Indiana Jones with a heart of gold to little more than a con man. Verdean isn’t that compelling a character. Accomplished with an air of prestige, he is so self-serious that he is blind to affection and addresses everyone flatly. Rockwell does his best but isn’t given the opportunity to break out of Verdean’s stoic mold. He is too ignorant about himself and others to be an irresistible draw.

Instead, it’s the side characters that deliver the most genuine laughs. Danny McBride’s pronunciations of “protozoa” and “sea monkey” are marvelous as a Pastor willing to finance Verdean. Clement and Will Forte give a hint as to what this film could have been if every plot point were taken several steps further. The thickly accented Boaz does much to escalate the tension in his personal quest for the American Dream of owning a Pontiac, jeans, and a woman. Forte injects some much needed zaniness into the fold as a former Satanist-turned-Christian who still hisses like a snake and has sudden inclinations for animal sacrifices. These brief glimpses of hilarity keep the film going but make it all the more disappointing when the results are so subdued.

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