The “Napoleon Dynamite” magic fails to re-materialize in Jared and Jerusha Hess’ latest comedy. “Don Verdean” has a promising premise: The titular protagonist is a self-appointed “biblical archaeologist” roaming the globe for famous relics that have mysteriously evaded far more qualified experts for centuries. But the expected satire of religious gullibility and charlatanism proves toothless; worse, a cast of very funny people is given very little funny to do. This Lionsgate title (its release TBA) looks to make its primary, modest impact in ancillary formats.
Things look encouraging enough at the outset, as we are privy to a highlight reel of low-end video clips from “Verdeen Acheological Discovery Prods.,” in which Sam Rockwell’s intrepid explorer for Jesus is seen allegedly wowing international audiences of the faithful with his amazing — or perhaps just credulity-stretching — finds in the Holy Land dirt. It seems whenever he thinks of a key memento from a biblical story, his faith leads him like a divining rod to its burial site. A decade later, however, he’s lecturing to paltry audiences back home in the U.S., his visibility perhaps diminished by the fact (as one attendee points out) that he appears to be entirely unknown or dismissed as a quack by any body of recognized, accredited archaeological researchers.
That doesn’t stop him getting a surprise new patron in the form of Rev. Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a former sinner redeemed by the Lord along with ex-hooker wife, Joylinda (Leslie Bibb). The couple promise to bankroll future expeditions in return for presenting his findings to the public, and reaping the resultant publicity. First Don and assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) have their Holy Lands man-on-the-ground Boaz (Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” and “What We Do in the Shadows”) ship over what is claimed to be the pillar of salt Lot’s wife famously turned into. That somehow goes over big, despite the statue sporting a conspicuous penis. The duo then head across to the Middle East themselves, hoping to excavate the skull of Goliath, that giant felled by little dude David’s slingshot.
But that plan doesn’t go so smoothly. Under pressure, Don substitutes for the elusive real thing a head stolen from the grave of a wrestler born with giantism (like, theoretically, Philistine warrior Goliath). Alert to this deception (which Verdeen claims is his first such cheat), Boaz blackmails his employer into taking him back to America and its “hot chicks.” The Israeli wastes little time inflating their claims and courting richer benefactors, resulting in a flat action climax where the duo stage a dramatic search-and-rescue of the Holy Grail on Southwestern U.S. Native American reservation land for the benefit of a Christian billionaire (Stephen Park) from China. Meanwhile, they’re being threatened with exposure by Pastor Fontaine (Will Forte), an ex-Satanist-turned-scheming rival for Lazarus’ Utah flock.
All this is fair enough in outline, but individual situations and dialogue are pedestrian at best, downright witless at worst. The Hesses (Jared directed, they both co-wrote) seem reluctant to risk insulting the faithful, so they’ve made a film about evangelical fraud that isn’t willing to let anyone (except Jewish Boaz) have clearly less-than-virtuous intentions. It would be better for comedic purposes if Verdean were either an overt con man or a holy fool, but the script and Rockwell’s performance play for a tepid middle ground that achieves little beyond being inoffensive. The actor (who also toplined the filmmakers’ “Gentleman Broncos”) is an executive producer here, and he’s been so consistently good in almost-star-making roles for the past couple of decades that it’s disappointing that this lead turn proves to be one of his more forgettable ones.
Ryan doesn’t find much humor in her role, while others like McBride and Bibb have nowhere to go after making amusing first impressions. Forte does brighten his scenes with a MacGruber-esque crass bravado, while Clement steals nearly all of his — proving that one really funny accent can lift an entire movie. (He also has the sole, regrettably brief bit of inspired physical comedy, a swivel-hipped disco seduction dance.) But these two manage to be standouts with scant help from their material.
Shot in Utah and Israel, pic’s assembly is OK, though budgetary limitations are somewhat noticeable. There’s no price tag on the film’s real poverty, however, which lays in the realm of inspired comedic situations and dialogue. The only notable soundtrack element is a jokey use of a few obvious gospel-pop oldies.
Sundance Film Review: Sam Rockwell in 'Don Verdean'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 27, 2015. Running time: 96 MIN.
A Lionsgate release of a Buffalo Film Co. production. Produced by Brandt Andersen, Dave Hunter, Jared Hunter, Jason Hatfield. Executive producers, Sam Rockwell, Rick Lehman.
Directed by Jared Hess. Screenplay, Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess. Camera (color, HD), Mattias Troelstrup; editor, Tanner Christensen; music, Ilan Eshkeri, Heavy Young Heathens; production designer, Richard Wright; costume designer, Anne Auernig; set decorator, Cynthia Neibaur; sound mixer, Douglas Cameron; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, David Barber, Ben Zarai; sound designer, Zarai; assistant director, Jason Allred; casting, Meredith Tucker.
Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Will Forte, Danny McBride, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Bibb, Stephen Park, Sky Elobar, PJ Boudousque, Yaniv Moyal, Jared Shipley, Logan Rogan.