On paper, Don Verdean seems like it might have had some satirical potential. It’s a comedy about a “Biblical archaeologist” and con-man (Sam Rockwell) who travels America’s churches marveling the faithful with his discoveries, his books, and his VHS-grade promo videos about all the cool God stuff he finds in The Holy Land. When he’s encouraged by a famous, wealthy Evangelical pastor (Danny McBride) to look for some major new artifacts, Don winds up going too far — first purporting to have found the pillar of salt that is Lot’s wife, then the skull of Goliath — and starts doubling down on his lies. But Don’s heart, we suspect, is good. “Finding treasure in the earth is meaningless if it doesn’t help get to Heaven someone that wouldn’t otherwise,” he tells his loyal assistant Carol (Amy Ryan, adorable but largely wasted), and we know he means it.
Directed by Jared Hess, who made a splash with Napoleon Dynamite back in 2004 but hasn’t managed to replicate that film’s success in the years since, Don Verdean has an ambling, quiet manner that dulls any satirical edge it might have had. That is perhaps forgivable, maybe even admirable on some level: Though the script is loaded with caricatures, Hess is gentle in how he portrays these characters, often emphasizing little human moments that undercut the fraud and the pious opportunism and the grave robbery and the kidnapping and the bribery.
What’s not forgivable is that the film forgets to be funny along the way. Comic situations this far-fetched require conviction — whether that conviction manifests itself through speed, or broad performances, or something else. Case in point: Napoleon Dynamite itself, a film that could have been a mess of cliché quirk but for Jon Heder’s fearless, committed performance, which held the broad, episodic material together and rendered it almost unforgettable. (Another example: the swift, precise films of Wes Anderson, to which Hess’s work was once compared.)
Unfortunately, Don Verdean is too sleepy, too casual to ever build up a similar head of comic steam. Rockwell looks the part, with his ’80s beard, his blow-dried coif, and his pinched, precise demeanor, but all too often, he’s relegated to reacting to others; you can easily imagine anyone else in the role. Technically speaking, McBride is ideal for the part of a boisterous, mouthy preacher who claims to have come back from the dead, but the film seems afraid to let him cut loose. Restraint, it turns out, is not always a virtue.
I think I chuckled about three times throughout the entirety of Don Verdean, and they all came courtesy of Jemaine Clement, who plays an Israeli shepherd named Boaz who joins in on Don’s duplicity. Understandable, since Clement has a way of sneaking in a line reading, a gesture, an inflection in a way that mines otherwise unremarkable lines and situations for humor. But it’s a shame when a supposed comedy has to rely on its performers to smuggle in laughs.