Religious themes will always spark controversy, but it’s never Jared or Jerusha Hess’ intention to lace Don Verdean with stinging societal commentary. Satire certainly exists, but in a more goofy, overexposed kind of way that makes light of men who build congregations around insane epiphanies and phony beliefs. The Hess’ don’t seek controversy, as Don Verdean exists in their silly realm of quirky character pieces like Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentleman Broncos – but this is certainly their most grounded effort to-date. This isn’t a case of Team Hess jumping ship, just an attempt at more straight-laced comedy and almighty exploitation. No flying spaghetti monsters, I promise!
Sam Rockwell plays a biblical artifact hunter named Don Verdean, who spreads the Lord’s word by proving scripture passages with evidence. Aided by his research assistant Carol Jensen (Amy Ryan), Don spends his days trying to prevent already dwindling congregation statistics from declining any farther. This is when he starts a working partnership with Tony Lazarus, a preacher who plans to beat the competition by exclusively displaying Don’s momentous finds. But when an expedition in Israel goes astray, Don’s team returns home with a fake representation of Goliath’s skull that must pass for the real thing. His partner Boaz (Jemaine Clement) tries to help, but only extends the lie to blasphemous proportions – a lie that could spell an end to Verdean’s career if the truth escapes.
So much comedy in Don Verdean comes at the expense of hilarious situational setups, as we learn about each character’s increasingly wacky past. Lazarus, for example, became a pastor after almost dying in a car crash that happens while he’s driving with a hooker. Tony claims God sent him back as a modern-day Lazarus, so he creates a congregation after marrying his prostitute companion (Leslie Bibb). Same goes for Pastor Fontaine (Will Forte), a converted Satanist who now preaches the word about how breakfast cereals are the work of the Devil (Grape Nuts?! More like GRAPE TESTICLES!). Jared and Jerusha gently allude to the contradictions these televangelists-types often promote, and how they prey on wayward souls who just want to believe in something – bad eggs who give religion a worse name.
Don Verdean is brighter than relishing in idiocy, though. While Don and Boaz try their hardest to replicate artifacts like Lot’s Wife or the Holy Grail, truer intentions reveal how humans are willing to accept anything as a sign. Verdean’s discovery of Lot’s Wife is sullied when a “hermaphroditic” rock appears with a suspicious bulge, yet thanks to a haphazard explanation, people are willing to throw caution away in the presence of something bigger. It’s a suggestion that answers don’t just materialize, and sometimes the journey is more telling than the result – but followers are never painted as outright fools. These are people looking for an answer, and the Hess’ playfully attack those extreme false prophets who feed off fulfilling any human’s basest need of total understanding.
Yet by dialing back their signature style, the Hess collective end up with quite an uneven product in Don Verdean. There are moments of genuine belly-laughs, mostly from Forte and Clement (surprise, surprise), but other streaks of chaotic storytelling could have benefited from an uptick in obscurity. Particularly during the film’s deceptive finale, Don’s zany hijinks seem unbelievable when compared to the grounded aura that precedes his holiest of hunts. Rockwell is a solid enough lead, as is Ryan’s love-interest-sidekick, but jumps in tone make Don Verdean feel like a record that skips around to different songs at random. Those of you who can’t stand the deadpan flatness of Napoleon Dynamite will probably enjoy Don’s safer travels, but for others, a missing wackiness will be noticed.
That said, Don Verdean made me laugh enough to enjoy this not-as-bizarre Hess effort. Themes are tight enough to comprehend, the satire is airy, and Clement’s thick accent provides a good chuckle – add in Forte’s antics, and you’ve got all the comedy you need. It’s a mockery of religious inside jobs and the bias of unquestioned faith, but Jared or Jerusha Hess combat the darkness with lighthearted, breezy laughs. Praise be to Rockwell, and may Johnny Jerusalem shine down on you each day.
Don Verdean is the most restrained Hess movie to date, but whether or not that's a good thing is to be decided individually among viewers.