Sam Rockwell cuts a great figure as a con man. Based on performances in “Matchstick Men,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and even “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Rockwell appears able to slip into a particular zone of earnest dishonesty without any real effort at all. (Not drawing any conclusions about the man here; that’s talent.) Even when he’s working in a minor mode, as in “Don Verdean,” that talent is enough to command some attention.
Rockwell plays this film’s title character, a “Biblical archeologist” whose work is more than a bit suspect. He’s made a living by unearthing Biblical artifacts, to the delight of the faithful. But is he for real? Around this figure, writer/director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) builds a comic diversion pitched somewhere between soft satire and madcap adventure.
Don is on the decline, but he’s recruited by Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a would-be megachurch preacher. Supposedly, Lazarus wants Don’s skill with antiquities to invigorate the faith of his parish. In fact, Lazarus is actually feeling pressure from a nearby rival, a Satanist-turned-evangelist played by Will Forte. A collection of impressive relics would help Lazarus expand his reach, so he hires Don to help create a museum, to be “like a Holy Land set in the good ol’ US of A, where it should be.”
The questionable archaeologist has a pal in Israel who’ll ship over a towering salt formation. Due to two frontal protuberances, Don claims this mineral statue is Lot’s wife. (“We need the one with the breasts,” Don says to his contact.) As the Israeli collaborator, Jemaine Clement experiments with a broad accent that is more Schwarzenegger than Sharon, but he also plays the role with a mean-spirited nature which turns out to be both comic and oddly appealing… in a super-dodgy way.
Hess (who co-wrote with wife and creative partner Jerusha Hess) sets the tone early with a gentle goof on low-budget infomercials. The footage leverages a VHS aesthetic and awkward staging to set up Don Verdean’s past. As the story evolves and the stakes are raised, however, the film never really budges off that first note. It’s genial throughout, never challenging. Plot points get more absurd (there’s a big riff on “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” for example) but the comic intensity never goes to boil.
For a moment, it seems like “Don Verdean” is poised to become a satire about belief and deception and the extremes to which we’ll go to maintain our faith. When the supposed remnants of Lot’s wife are shipped to Lazarus, not only is it the wrong pillar of salt, it’s one which appears to have a penis. Verdean neatly works that into his explanation, and we watch the church collectively turn a few gears working out how to accept it.
While satire is baked into the mix, it never rises above other, more broad comedic ideas. This is mostly a story about exaggerated personalities doing exaggeratedly silly things in order to prop up their own sense of self-worth. To the Hess’s credit, the film never quite stoops to mocking those who maintain their faith. Amy Ryan‘s Carol, the genuinely devout woman who acts as ballast to Don’s selfishness, acts as a guiding light for some of the characters and the film’s approach to faith.
That’s not to say “Don Verdean” isn’t cynical, however, if only because the absurdities of some modern American religious institutions are large, familiar targets. Don and Carol are fairly well-drawn characters, but others fall off into caricature pretty fast — especially Will Forte’s former Satanist. Forte’s zany approach earns a few cackles, but the character is even more ridiculous than you might encounter in a film from Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.
Wry jokes do often keep the script propped up. Pressed on the validity of one artifact, Don goes on the defensive, asking “What makes you think you can carbon-date the wrath of the almighty?” Leslie Bibb plays Joylinda Lazarus, a sex worker who was born again as the wife of Tony Lazarus, and she gets to kick off the reveal of Lot’s wife with a song: “Pillar of salt, it’s all her fault, she should have stopped when her husband said halt!” It’s a good riff.
“Don Verdean” could be more sharp, more focused, and it’s easy to be disappointed by the film’s low ambitions. That said, this movie is not at all pretentious. This is ninety minutes of comic actors having a genial go at middle-of-the-road material.It doesn’t have any guts, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny. [C+]