Film Review: Don Verdean

A stunningly unfunny send-up of religious charlatanism.
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By its very nature, satire is smug, appealing to the creators’ sense of superiority simply by pointing to, usually with a heavy dose of overstatement, a stereotype, convention or viewpoint that they (the artists and by extension their audiences) are hip enough to recognize, patronize and/or condemn and/or celebrate.

To work even on the most modest level, satire, sendup, spoof (whatever one dubs it) had better be very clever and amusing just to compensate for its built-in tone of self-congratulation. Regrettably, Don Verdean doesn’t come close. It is a jaw-droppingly unfunny parody of religious charlatanism. Now that’s an elusive target, isn’t it?

Sam Rockwell, who plays the title role, is an archeologist—part con man, part holy clown—trotting about the globe with his smitten, truly Christian assistant Carol (Amy Ryan), excavating biblical burial sites in search of relics. It all starts with his discovery of grotesquely misshapen shears that he intuits were used on Samson, leading to a flurry of press coverage and a following among evangelicals.

Fast-forward ten years and Verdean has fallen out of favor with the believers, who are now demanding solid evidence for his discoveries. Enter the slick Rev. Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a redeemed sinner, and his crucifix-bejeweled wife Joylinda (Leslie Bibb), an ex-hooker who has seen the light too. In an effort to boost their dwindling congregation, they offer to underwrite Verdean’s expeditions/discoveries, believing once they join forces with him they (and their church) will be the beneficiaries of whatever publicity he reaps.

Verdean is more determined than ever to find valuable ancient fragments and convinces himself he has discovered the fossilized pillar of salt that was formerly Lot’s wife. With the help of his Israeli counterpart, a sly operator named Boaz (Jemaine Clement), he brings it home.

The hardened blob boasts a phallus, but that does not deter the churchgoers’ excitement.  Encouraged, Verdean sets out to disinter Goliath’s giant skull, but somehow, his usual powers of detection fail him. Rather than return empty-handed, he tracks down the grave of a legendary Israeli wrestler afflicted with gigantism, wrenches opens the casket, and severs the corpse’s head, planning to present it as Goliath’s. He says it’s his first real bit of fakery. Boaz doesn’t care and blackmails him into taking him to America to shack up with “hot chicks.”

Back in the States, Boaz takes over the operation, exaggerating the value of their finds, while defrauding huge funds from nitwit donors, resulting in a frenetic chase for the Holy Grail somewhere in the Southwest, on behest of a Chinese billionaire (Stephen Park) who has come onboard. This scene involves Native Americans who are on the take as well.

The film tries to be equal-opportunity offensive and for the most part succeeds. Still, the Jew is the most corrupt, irredeemable character and despite Clement’s charm—he is a fine comic actor—what emerges is borderline anti-Semitic. Mel Brooks could pull it off. Married co-creators Jared and Jerusha Hess cannot.

Don Verdean, marking their fourth feature (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos), is a joyless celebration of well-trod stereotypes in an even more joyless madcap lampoon. In the elevator following a recent screening, a collection of glazed reviewers appeared shell-shocked. One said the experience was “stunning,” while another muttered it rendered her “speechless.”

In all fairness, there is one mildly amusing image. Spoiler alert: At the end in the slammer, Boaz is sporting an orange yarmulke, color-coordinated to match his prison jumpsuit.

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