Sundance Film Review: Don Verdean

4:54 PM

Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement in Don Verdean

I saw Don Verdean twice, though the second time was actually just in an effort to catch a glimpse of Sam Rockwell. It's the latest film from Jared and Jerusha Hess who came to prominence at Sundance in 2004, with their fresh new brand of comedy, Napoleon Dynamite, which featured a moon boot-ed, chapped lipped Jon Heder as the eponymous geek hero. Since then, the husband-wife duo have created Nacho Libre (2006), Gentlemen Broncos (2009), and now Don Verdean (2015). Don Verdean might be their best film since Napoleon Dynamite, but that’s not saying much. Each new effort from Team Hess further convinces me of their clawing desperation to recapture the spirit of their debut feature. 

Don Verdean opens with a '90s VHS recording of the titular character; a bearded and bespectacled Sam Rockwell as the world-renowned Biblical Archaeologist presenting his latest extraordinary find — the shears that cut Sampson’s hair. Fast-forward to the present day, and Don has gone from wowing stadiums of believers with his Godly artifacts, to addressing a small group of churchgoers. A man from the crowd asks Don about allegations against him and his work, allegations which Don disproves in a fascinatingly rational way. Soon Don is brought before megachurch pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), and Joylinda Lazarus (Leslie Bibb), his hooker-turned-Christian wife, who offer to bankroll Don’s digs in the Holy Land. In exchange for financial backing, the Lazaruses request precious Biblical artifacts for their church in an effort to restore the faith in their straying flock. Don’s contact in Israel is Boaz, a heavily-accented, slow-on-the-uptake Jemaine Clement, who sends Don such wonders as Lot’s Wife. Where Don’s morality starts a downwards spiral is when, in desperation at not recovering the head of Goliath, he raids the grave of Johnny Jerusalem, an Israeli wrestler afflicted with Gigantism. Boaz joins in on the ruse as the sinfulness of it all starts to outweigh the sincerity of Don’s intentions. 

Amy Ryan as Don’s assistant, Carol is actually the real standout in the film since Sam Rockwell plays Don Verdean just as well as to be expected, given that Don is shockingly dull, and really only compelling for his all-to-brief moments of heroism. The most laughs come the Lazaruses with their tacky approach to worship, and from Boaz. But even then, all Boaz is is a funny accent and one particularly inspired dance montage. 

Interestingly, Don is established right off the bat as a man of his word, and we’re meant to understand that he truly believes in the Biblical artifacts he finds. In that sense, it's oddly unsettling to be presented with such a character who never once finds himself at the mercy of mocking or ridicule by the filmmakers or by the audience. Where a significant amount of comedic opportunity has gone to waste is with the unquestioning virtue of Don Verdean. The Hesses have painted their character as someone who has made a series of wrong decisions, but is nevertheless a morally upright sort of person. Every wrong thing that is done is not wrong when in the interest of faith. Even as he's chiseling the perfect blunt force mark in the head of Johnny Jerusalem i.e. David’s proposed Goliath, Don's quality never falters from that of holy decency. I wondered, going into the film, how the Hesses would approach the subject of archaeological fraud in the name of the Bible, being that their own religion, Mormonism is notorious for that sort of behaviour. If I remember correctly, the prophet Joseph Smith "translated" much of the Book of Abraham from Ancient Egyptian papyri, later proved with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, to be simple funerary instructions. Among many many other similar stories of fraudulence. But I digress. If wholesome comedy à la Napolean Dynamite was the goal, it could never have endured under circumstances as irrevocably derided as Biblical Archaeology. A cunning, con-man Don Verdean would have elevated the film from its boringness through virtuosity. Don Verdean craves an anti-hero, not the squeaky-clean man of God who just slightly steps off the path of righteousness. 

Don Verdean has enormous potential, but unforgivably misses the mark when comedy is sacrificed for the sake of morality. 

Don Verdean
dir. Jared Hess
Starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb
90 Minutes | USA

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