Sundance 2015: Goofy Religious Antics in Jared Hess' 'Don Verdean'
by Alex Billington
January 30, 2015
There are a growing number of recent films that have tried to make a fun joke out of religion, which can sometimes be a sensitive subject (at least in this country). Not many of them are that good, as sometimes they get too dumb with the humor (e.g. Year One), but sometimes they strike the right chord, touching upon both the importance of and hilarity of modern religion. Don Verdean is the latest film from Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess, the husband/wife filmmaker team that brought us Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos previously. Don Verdean is the name of religious artifacts collector who gets into some deep shit.
In Don Verdean, Sam Rockwell dons a beard and plays Don, a religious collector who made a name for himself years ago but is well past his prime now. Working with his assistant Carol, played by Amy Ryan, he decides to work with a new church that plans to fully fund him and any of his endeavors. But his friend in the Middle East, Boaz played by Jemaine Clement, sends him a complete fake. He then decides to travel to Israel himself to find the next artifact, but realizes it's just impossible, and so they begin an adventure of faking whatever they need and it works, bringing fame & fortune to them. Until it all comes crashing down.
Some of the film's religious jokes fall flat, and the story moves through some oddly melodramatic beats and funky side characters, like Danny McBride as Tony Lazarus and Leslie Bibb as his wife Joylinda (a prostitute he married when she found God). They are amusing at first, but they get rather tired quickly. However, I will say that Jemaine Clement as an Israeli, complete with an accent, beard and yarmulke, was hilarious. He's one of my favorite characters that Clement has ever played, and he brings out so many of the laughs in this film. He just wants to live the American dream, and it's fun to see him act the way he does, it's the perfect realization of a goofball. It may not be politically correct, but that doesn't matter with a comedy.
By the end, there's a few memorable moments spread thin amongst an otherwise unmemorable film. I do admire the originality and I'm glad that Hess went so far as to make and deliver this kind of film, not that it's going to come under fire from Christians, but just that it does prod at the ridiculousness of religious fanatics. Hess has a keen ability to craft very strong, very fun original characters and he proves that again with Don Verdean. If anything, that's the highest praise I can give: it's unflinchingly original and goes all the way with its characters. It's not the kind of film I'll be raving about the rest of the year, but it's not terrible.
Alex's Sundance 2015 Rating: 7 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing