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Don Verdean

D: Jared Hess / 96m

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Will Forte, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb, Steve Park, Sky Elobar

Now and then a motion picture comes along that rocks the very foundation of accepted Christian belief, a movie that lifts the lid on the precepts of religious beliefs and exposes them to the light of clever satire. And for its first twelve minutes, Don Verdean looks like it might be that movie. But once those twelve minutes are over, and Don (Rockwell) commits to working with born-again preacher Tony Lazarus (McBride), any hopes of something special are dashed by the introduction of Boaz (Clement), an Israeli jack-of-all-trades who brings the movie down to earth with a resounding thud.

It’s not so much that Boaz is a manipulative, shady, stupid, sexist, arrogant, deceiving, lying opportunist, nor that he comes close to being one of the most offensive racial characters seen in recent years, but purely because he becomes the driving force behind a plot that doesn’t need him. Boaz is a character who belongs in another movie entirely, and one that hasn’t got the kind of ambition that Don Verdean has. But he’s there, he’s an idiot, and we’re stuck with him. (Even Clement, an actor whose comedy chops aren’t to be overlooked, can’t do much with him; and if he can’t, how’s the viewer meant to cope?)

Don Verdean - scene2

The way in which Boaz overwhelms both the narrative and the other characters is unfortunate for several reasons. The movie sets out its comedic stall from the start with an infomercial detailing Don’s successes finding holy artefacts in Israel, items such as his greatest find: iron shears dating back over 3000 years (and possibly the very shears used to rob Samson of his hair – yes?). The narration is portentous and deadly serious, and it’s this seriousness that is carried forward as we see Don field questions about the validity of his finds at a small church group. Don responds to these doubts with calm sincerity, and even though the viewer will know without a shadow of a doubt that he’s as naive in his own way as the people that believe in him, he’s also determined to provide reassurance for those whose faith might be wavering.

With Don’s unwavering naïvete matched by the public’s erstwhile gullibility, he joins forces with Lazarus and Lazarus’s ex-prostitute wife Joylinda (Bibb) to bring even more religious artefacts back from the Holy Land (even if the whole idea is both illegal and preposterous). Lazarus wants to put these items on display at his church, both as a display of his unwavering faith, and as a way of undermining a rival ministry run by ex-Satanist-turned preacher Pastor Fontaine (Forte). Don has a lead on the remains of Lot’s Wife – actually a rock formation that looks like it has breasts – and contacts Boaz to arrange to have them shipped to the States, but the Israeli sends a different “statue”. Lazarus retains his faith in Don and asks if there is a particular antiquity he’d like to track down. Don’s answer? The skull of Goliath.

Don Verdean - scene3

However, setbacks in Israel lead Don to make an awful decision, and he fakes finding the skull. When Boaz discovers the deception, he blackmails Don into bringing him to the US. And the script, by Hess and his wife Jerusha, quickly runs out of comedic steam as it brings Boaz’ selfish demands and childish behaviour to the fore, and sidelines Don’s attempts to weather the storm of his professional duplicity. It’s still a funny movie, but by now it’s lost the subtlety and the poise applied by a cast who know to play things completely straight, even when they’re called upon to behave ridiculously or say something absurd (even McBride, an actor not exactly known for the subtlety of his performances, reigns in the urge to put in a larger than life performance, and his tirade against sea monkeys is a highlight).

With the focus now on Boaz and his increasingly ludicrous machinations, the script brings in an unlikely scam: the finding of the Holy Grail (on an Indian reservation no less). It’s an idea that’s ripe for comic exploitation, but again, Hess misjudges the strength of the material, and the movie labours under the weight of that misjudgment, and struggles to recover. A twist in the tale proves laboured and is awkwardly revealed, and the subplot involving Don’s lovelorn assistant Carol (Ryan) is wrapped up with undue haste. And the less said about Pastor Fontaine and his efforts to see Lazarus’s church shut down the better.

Don Verdean - scene1

This is very much a movie with a core idea – the need for religious proof of events mentioned in the Bible in an increasingly secular world – that is downplayed and eventually discarded in favour of a succession of betrayals and implausible story turns that eradicate the good work done in the movie’s first half hour. Rockwell is laidback as  Don, playing him with a delicate sense of irony that makes the character immensely likeable and sympathetic, even when he responds to Carol’s dismay that he’s never asked her about her personal life by saying he hasn’t because he didn’t think she had one. Ryan struggles to make Carol anything more than an amiable stereotype, while Forte comes close to sabotaging his own performance by substituting mugging for acting. And Clement… well…

By the end, most viewers will be feeling a mixture of disappointment and ennui, as the script tries to wind things up with one last flourish, but it’s an effort that comes too late, and reminds the viewer of what might have been if the script had been more focused on the world of Biblical archaeology and its desperate-to-believe supporters. Instead, Hess’s latest fails to make the most of its central idea, and never fully gets to grips with its inherent notions of faith and honesty.

Rating: 5/10 – with a script that strays further and further away from its initial set up with each successive minute, Don Verdean lacks coherence and conviction once the search for Goliath’s skull is begun; Rockwell is good value as usual, but those expecting a more concerted, consistently humorous movie will be sorely disappointed thanks to some very poor storyline choices.