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Church Satire Fails on All Fronts - Especially Humor - in Don Verdean

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • 2015 9 Dec
Church Satire Fails on All Fronts - Especially Humor - in <i>Don Verdean</i>

DVD Release Date: March 1, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: December 11, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive content, some language and brief violence)
Genre: Comedy/Satire
Run Time: 90 min.
Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Will Forte, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb, Steve Park, Sky Elobar, P.J. Boudousque, Jared Shipley

Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband/wife duo responsible for the offbeat comic gems Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre (let's just pretend the atrocious Gentlemen Broncos never happened), have largely succeeded with a decidedly Seinfeld-ian approach to storytelling: writing movies that are essentially about nothing.

But in the absence of plot, it's the winsome characters and weird, stream-of-conscious comedic set-ups that offer a wide range of appeal (if your sense of humor skews that way, that is. I've watched Napoleon Dynamite with people who didn't laugh once, so maybe the Hesses' work is more of an acquired taste like healthy green juice).

Perhaps hoping for a better shot at mass appeal this time around, the Hesses have opted for a more traditionally structured story with Don Verdean. In what's essentially a satirical look at the shady lengths some pastors will go to hold the attention of the flock, Don Verdean has plenty going for it on paper, including an appealing, comedic cast and a premise rife with potential.

As so many movies have proven in the past, however, decent actors and an interesting concept can only get filmmakers so far. The problems that plague Don Verdean are apparent almost immediately. Not only does it take way, way too long to get the party started, but the once-reliable comic relief never bothers showing up. Instead, it's been replaced with a script that's completely bananas - and not in a good way - and the borderline offensive attempts at humor are so dumb they're not even worth getting upset about. In short, Don Verdean is a giant mess where basically all the footage belonged on the cutting room floor.

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Sam Rockwell (The Way, Way Back), sporting a wig that looks like it was left over from Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live days, plays the titular character, a self-appointed biblical archeologist. After supposedly unearthing gems like the scissors that famously cut Samson's hair, Verdean has amassed a sizable following of churchgoers who feel their faith is affirmed and enriched by seeing "actual proof" of Biblical realities.

While Verdean has carved out a comfortable professional niche with steady-ish work and DVDs that sell relatively well, he's desperate to take his "work" to the next level. In his quest for "bigger" finds, like the head of Goliath, for example, Verdean eventually comes upon the fast-track to success after a local pastor, Rev. Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride, Aloha), agrees to bankroll any future excavations.

Lazarus, who describes himself as "a former sinner redeemed by grace," and his wife, an ex-hooker named Joylinda (Leslie Bibb, Talladega Nights), have their own reasons for wanting Verdean to be successful. After Pastor Fontaine (Will Forte, Nebraska), a former Satanist, moved to town and started a church, Rev. Lazarus found it difficult to compete with a more colorful testimony. So with local church attendance favoring Fontaine's congregation by an increasing number, the Lazarus family feels an immediate need for relevancy.

Feeling the pressure to deliver something extraordinary—and fast—Verdean reaches out to his contact in the Holy Land, Boaz (Jemaine Clement, best known for TV's "Flight of the Conchords"). Also seeking his own big break (to head to the States in pursuit of "hot chicks" and "The American Dream"), Boaz insists he can produce the pillar of salt that Lot's wife turned into.

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Regardless of how odd the discovery looks ("Lot's wife" is sporting both female and male anatomy), or that its authenticity hasn't been verified by anyone accredited, the local church folks see it as a tangible sign of God's existence. Not surprisingly, Rev. Lazarus and Verdean enjoy the spoils of mass adulation and media attention, much to Pastor Fontaine's chagrin. He seems to be the only one with a lick of sense in this entire production because he, quite rightly, smells the proverbial rat. Now he's just got to prove it.

Meanwhile, empowered by all the attention, Don opts for increasingly deceitful practices, eventually heading to the Middle East in search of Goliath's head. A slew of dead ends lead him to break into a grave of a wrestler born with giantism and present that skull as the famous Philistine warrior's cranium instead. Trouble is, the wrong person gets wind of Don's deception, and the increasingly opportunistic Boaz blackmails Don into making his business a partnership. Before long, Boaz is courting Christian leaders with far deeper pockets like a Chinese billionaire who is promised access to the Holy Grail, and it's here where the story segues from a lackluster stab at social commentary to a bizarro knock-off of Indiana Jones.

Don Verdean hints at relevant takeaways for the modern Church: the inherent competitiveness of church leaders to maintain and grow their congregations... the constant battle to "prove" our faith to draw new converts... the gullibility of some who'll believe anything that's spoken or shown from the pulpit. So Don Verdean could have been timely satire. Instead, it falls flat in every possible way. Not only is this film shockingly unfunny, but its point of view is so tepid and timid that you're not quite sure why the Hesses went there in the first place.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

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  • Drugs/Alcohol: References to cannabis
  • Language/Profanity: Bast--d shows up a few times, as well as he—and da--. Other words, including gawl-dong and Holy Ghostpower, sub in for their harsher counterparts.
  • Sex/Nudity: Several references to male and female anatomy, including a statue of (supposedly) Lot's wife that's a hermaphrodite. Boaz makes it known that he wants "one night" with Carol but clarifies it's not to "make love" but to dance, talk, etc. When they do get together, Boaz makes a pass at her anyway. References to Pastor Lazurus's wife's past work as a hooker.
  • Violence/Thematic Elements: Don rips the head from a corpse. Irresponsible gunfire leads to a few injuries in one scene. A person is stuffed in a trunk.

Publication date: December 10, 2015