Review: Don Verdean
PLOT: Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a self-described “biblical archaeologist” whose findings are often met with disbelief and derision. Now eking out a living on the church lecture tour, Don gets his big break when a pastor (Danny McBride) offers to finance his digs in the Holy Land, provided he bring something back that will bring people to his church.
REVIEW: I think it's safe to say that I walked into DON VERDEAN with a great deal of skepticism. I'm never been the biggest fan of director Jared Hess' NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and I full-on hated GENTLEMEN BRONCOS (although I liked NACHO LIBRE). I was fully intending to skip DON VERDEAN as it seemed (up to now) that his stuff didn't appeal to me. Yet, after I heard bad buzz about the original film I was going to see, I decided to take a shot on DON VERDEAM and I'm glad I did.
While certainly quirky (a quality Hess' films have always embraced) and likely not for everyone, DON VERDEAN is actually quite charming. It has at least half-a-dozen inspired comic performances in it, a few really good belly laughs, and some surprisingly interesting – if mild – things to say about religion and the culture of belief.
In the lead, Sam Rockwell gives an inspired comic performance. Sporting a curly fro (somewhat tamer than NAPOLEON DYNAMITE's doo) and a drawl, Rockwell could have played Verdean as a caricature but tries to give him some depth and heart, particularly in his relationship with his adoring assistant (a charming Amy Ryan). While it's Rockwell's show, most of the belly laughs come from Jemaine Clement who steals every scene as Don's Israeli accomplice. Granted, it's something of a broad middle-eastern caricature, but Clement is so funny with his broad character work (complete with an indecipherable accent) that it feels like a stretch to think anyone will be offended. Once he gets to the US and starts to pursue his gloriously corrupt version of the American dream, Clement mercilessly steals scenes, but stops just short of chewing the scenery, establishing a good dynamic with Rockwell.
As the pastor bankrolling Verdean, Danny McBride is ideally cast as the co-called Sam Lazarus, who claims he found God after a debauched evening with a prostitute, to the point that he married her (Leslie Bibb – another scene-stealer) and made himself a pastor. His rival is an ex-satanist-turned-minister played by Will Forte, who's not above breaking out the occasional demonic hiss at his enemies. Showing these two allows Hess to work in a sly criticism about how so many nutty pastors hold sway over their congregations when they probably actually belong in a psych ward (this makes an interesting companion piece to I AM MICHAEL in this regard).
Of course, DON VERDEAN isn't perfect. The heist subplot that closes the film out seems a little slapdash, although it does end an a nice note. While it's certainly more of a niche comedy kind of thing, fans of Hess' work will no doubt love it and if my reaction is anything to go by, non-fans may like it too.