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Don Verdean | Review

Going Clear: Hess’ Uncomfortable Religious Comedy Defuses Subversive Potential

Don Verdean PosterReligion and comedy don’t make for comfortable bedfellows, at least not for films attempting to play it safe by simultaneously poking fun at blind belief while expecting us to empathize with an inability to question basic tenets of any particular religious belief system. This is exactly the tone director Jared Hess strikes with his new comedy Don Verdean, a film about a well-meaning religious charlatan preying on the superstitious beliefs of Christians devoted to finding archaeological relics supposedly proving various mythological instances from the Bible. Rather than castigate his characters, we’re meant to laugh at their desperate antics in a sort of moral fable whose agenda is made palatable by its notable cast members allowing for a work around from falling into a religious niche market.

A decade ago, biblical archaeologist Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) discovered an artifact in Israel believed to prove the existence of Christ. His discovery inspired a notable following, albeit one dwindling away nearly to nothing. With a representative from Israel publicly distancing the country from the questionable discovery (which technically would’ve been illegal since he never had authority to dig there), Verdean is at his wit’s end, though his assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) stands staunchly by his side. When the pastor of a new church (Danny McBride) hires Verdean to acquire flashy artifacts for his congregation, the smooth talker is forced to become inventive. His contact in Israel, Boaz (Jemaine Clement) sends him a rock statue meant to be the remnant of Lott’s wife. When that discovery goes unquestioned, he flies to Israel and unearths the remains of Goliath’s skull (a feat he carries off with a bit of grave robbing from the site of a famed Israeli suffering from gigantism). Eventually, Don Verdean begins to learn the consequences of his great lies and how they cause irreparable harm to those around him.

Following the success of his directorial debut Napoleon Dynamite (2004), all of Hess’ subsequent films have failed to crawl out of the shadow of the indie sleeper hit. Perhaps this is because Hess, along with his wife and frequent collaborator Jerusha Hess (director of 2013’s Austenland) simply gravitate towards funny sounding scenarios, quirky in concept but failing to develop meaningful characters or emotional gravitas when fleshing them out. Hess reunites with his Gentlemen Broncos (2009) stars Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement, both charming, comically inclined performers.

We’ve seen Rockwell as down-and-out types before, and there’s nothing innately original about his titular con-artist character here (in fact, he seems like the woebegone continuation of his character from Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men). The film’s uneasy straddling of religion and caricature tends to underwhelm the comedic potential. We’re supposed to believe, despite his fraudulent activities, Don Verdean is a good Christian at heart, simply one of the flock who’s lost his way on his journey to inspire others. But we never quite believe this is true of Verdean, at least not in the broken down sense of the similarly roguish revivalist Elmer Gantry (1960), played so memorably by Burt Lancaster, or Steve Martin’s fake faith healer in Leap of Faith (1993). Rockwell’s Verdean feels more like a Marjoe Gortner type if he had been forced into returning to a religion and the worship of a deity he’d already publicly shunned.

Clement, dubiously cast as an Israeli, is broad comic relief, and often sounds like he’s doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Amy Ryan has the thankless duty of Verdean’s slavish, love-struck assistant, but we can’t quite believe her attraction to him since he’s a character with little charisma and incredibly shoddy archaeological skills. But then the whole point of Hess’ film seems to have something to do with people only seeing what they care to see—but then this pendulum swings both ways.

Watching the Hess clan engage in oddly quirky, watered down religious semantics feels like letting those door-to-door religious salespeople in for just a moment, never realizing relenting even an inch is a mistake. In light of the increasingly restrictive and staunchly homophobic policies of the Mormon church, (a religion Jared and Jerusha Hess publicly acknowledge as their faith), their particular brand of inoffensive comedy can be aligned with the same insidious potential as the ulterior motives of the Church of Scientology and that religion’s infiltration of celebrity culture through names like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

While Don Verdean grapples with members of the Christian faith, the general us vs. them culture of religious principles is inherent in every denomination. The jokey performance of Will Forte as a Satanist turned Christian Pastor, and Danny McBride as another befuddled congregation leader don’t seem to be doing either side any favor except for the unattractive sideshow all of these faith based gesticulations are eventually reduced to.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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