'Don Verdean' Takes Shaky Aim At The Dark Side Of Faith
In the last few years, the so-called "faith-based" film industry has expanded by Miracle-Gro leaps and bounds. Smash hits like God's Not Dead and War Room found their audiences by not only explicitly referencing the Almighty, but also casting Him to intervene in the lives of ordinary Americans, whether by inspiring a true-believer student to win a debate against his atheist professor or casting Satan out of an abusive marriage.
If you took one of those movies, flipped it over, doused it with skepticism and looked at it in the mirror, you'd wind up with Don Verdean, the story of a crooked archaeologist who fakes the discoveries of holy artifacts in order to bring people closer to God (but also for profit, too, if he's being honest). The film isn't quite funny enough as an Indiana Jonesparody, but it works better as a light, sporadically clever send-up of Biblical literalism and elements of American megachurch culture. And coming from Napoleon Dynamite creators Jared and Jerusha Hess (Mormons who reside in Utah, where the film is set), it has a quirky outsider perspective that keeps it from feeling like a cynical Hollywood hornet's-nest poking.
As played with gnarly facial hair and a look of constant panic by Sam Rockwell, Don Verdean is a charming bottom-feeder. He drives his RV between churches hawking books that recount dubiously successful archaeological digs (an opening VHS promotional video is worthy of Tim & Eric), and sales are so bad he sleeps in the RV, too. But a gift from God arrives in the form of an Evangelical pastor (Danny McBride, in full meathead-drawl) who hires Don to bring him Biblical items from Israel to display in his church. Such a collection, he believes, will demonstrate that everything in the Good Book is true, thereby pulling his wavering flock back into the faith. "A holy land, right here in the good ol' U.S. of A," enthuses the pastor's lascivious wife (Leslie Bibb), who will later belt a passionate song about submitting to her husband.
So Don starts hauling in big findings, one after the other, like he's fishing for candy in the kids' treasure chest at Trader Joe's. First his sleazy Israeli associate Boaz (Jemaine Clement, here sporting a thick accent and frozen countenance) hauls in a pillar of salt he believes to be Lot's wife—never mind the ... anatomical inconsistencies. Then, along with his lovestruck assistant (Amy Ryan), Don journeys to the Holy Land himself to unearth Goliath's skull: a task that involves some light grave robbery and a Google search for "Israelis with gigantism." A little bit of phony science-language goes a long way in this church, it seems, and soon it's time to help a devout Chinese billionaire uncover "the Holy Grail of Biblical artifacts: the Holy Grail."
It's surprisingly biting, dark territory for the writer-director pair who brought the world "Vote for Pedro" and the brightly clad luchadores of Nacho Libre—although the movie's deadpan style and faux-amateurish rough edges are perfectly in line with the Hess filmography. Also like their past films, the humor is very hit-and-miss, both because it's wielding a rather blunt satirical weapon and because the sheer number of people Don fools becomes hard to swallow. But when Don Verdean's barbs land, they work, whether McBride is launching into a Voltron-inspired theory about dinosaur fossils or Will Forte, as a reformed-Satanist-turned-rival-preacher, is condemning the evils of breakfast cereal.
There are times when the film feels mean-spirited, something that's hard to avoid when your comedic target is religion. As though to counteract the idea that these believers are all either snake-oil peddlers or dangerously gullible, the Hesses assert that Don himself isn't a bad guy so much as a desperate one. The true villain turns out to be Boaz, who in the latter half comes close to being a crooked Jewish stereotype — though he's surrounded by much more overt Evangelical stereotypes. But distancing your protagonist from his actions is a disingenuous move when you began with him exploiting, for personal gain, both religion and public misconceptions of his trade. If you're going to go after something as hot-button as faith, at least have the courage of your convictions.
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