Movie Review: Why doesn’t “Don Verdean” work?

donvercbIt’s got the always-funny Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement, Will Forte and Danny McBride in it. And the can-be-funny Amy Ryan and Leslie Bibb show up in support.

The team behind “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre” wrote and filmed it.

And the premise, a credulous Biblical archaeologist starts faking his Bible-confirming discoveries? Seems like a natural.

So why isn’t “Don Verdean” funnier?

Start with the title character’s makeup and Rockwell’s performance of Don Verdean. He’s a low-rent scientist catering to the science-denying corner of American religion, Fundamentalist Christians. He’s famous in those circles for “finding” the shears that the Philistines used to shear Old Testament hero Samson’s strength-giving locks.

But fame for this thinker of unspecified credentials means he lives in the smallest late model Winnebago on the road, traveling from church to church, giving presentations, selling books and trying to (gently) stare down his critics.

He’s a believer, and bringing people to Christ is what he sees as his mission. “The Lord guides my hand” as he searches the Holy Land (without permission) for his “World changing discoveries.”

But  fortune smiles on him when a slippery Super Church pastor, Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride) and the hooker he was caught with and then married (Leslie Bibb, a hoot) commission Don to bring the wonders of The Holy Land “over here, where they belong.”

A bungled first discovery — Lot’s Wife (turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) — shows the flaws in Verdean’s methodology. The Bible is his map, shady testing (discovering the acidic soil that MUST have been Sodom) his science and a shadier, and incompetent Israeli hustler (Jemaine Clement) is his Holy Land hook-up.

Don’s as gullible as those he sells his story to.

As they cover up the Lot’s Wife fiasco (the stone formation has a penis), Don Verdean, his trusty True Believer assistant (Amy Ryan) and these inept Israelis scamper about Israel, chased by gun-waving cops, frantically trying to locate Goliath’s skull through Biblical direction, intuition and prayer.

And they’re doing it on a budget — just a couple of days to find something tangible from the fog of Judeo-Christian myth. You can see the dilemma. So true believer Don takes a shortcut into fakery. Boaz the Israeli (Clement) figures it out and aids and blackmails him. He wants to come to America, get women and have his own Pontiac. A Fiero, apparently.

Will Forte has a wicked twinkle and some clever bits of business as the equally disgraced competitor to Pastor Tony in their corner of MegaChurch Utah. He’s just waiting to expose them all, adding more pressure to Verdean’s work.

Director Jared Hess is so centered in PG niceness that even his scoundrels are soft around the edges, and that works against the film. Don Verdean seems more confused than despicable, and never remotely as desperate as this bottom feeder no doubt is.

Hess and his co-writer wife Jerusha are Mormons, and their films can be patronizing, with a “Who us?”  racism about characters outside their worldview. Making Don Verdean an innocent and Boaz (Clement gives him a thick Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) the truly unscrupulous one is excused because, what, he’s called “Israeli” and not a Jew?

Hess refuses to judge the gullible and one wonders if the writer and director had some notion of centering this on Mormon penchant for “Biblical proof” artifact hunting, but lost their nerve.

Ryan has nothing to play here, but McBride, Forte, Bibb and especially Clement push their characters into caricature in search of laughs. And they find a few.

But the normally dependable Rockwell seems uncertain of what to do with Verdean, determined to play the straight-arrow straight man, struggling to find Truth or something that will pass for it with the good-hearted folk he never once thinks of as “rubes” who are his clientele.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive content, some language and brief violence)

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Jemaine Clement, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb
Credits: Directed by Jared Hess , script by Jared and Jerusha Hess. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:35

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