Don Verdean
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // $19.99 // March 1, 2016
Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 20, 2016
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In general, films about faith tend to fall into one of two categories: the sincere (and often critically unpopular) attempts to bring religion to the big screen, and the satiric. At a glance, Don Verdean would appear to be the latter, cast as it is with the very funny Sam Rockwell, Danny McBride, Will Forte, and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement. However, Verdean is also the new film by Jared Hess (director, co-writer, producer) and his wife Jerusha (co-writer), who shot to fame as the team behind Napoleon Dynamite. The Hesses are both Mormons who live in Salt Lake City, and although their willingness to make a comedy about religion is admirable, Don Verdean is ultimately hobbled by an unwillingness to actually skewer any of their various targets.

Don Verdean (Rockwell) is a "Biblical archaeologist", who tours the country speaking about his greatest find -- the shears of Samson -- as well as hawking his book on his other digs and discoveries. It seems his heyday is behind him (the engagement the film opens with is sparsely attended and extremely quiet), so he jumps at a request to meet with Utah pastor Tony Lazarus (McBride). Lazarus wants to hire Verdean to track down some more authentic Biblical finds to draw attention to his church, which is having its members sapped by his competition, former Satanist Pastor Fontaine (Forte). Before long, Don is on the ground in Israel, accompanied by his faithful assistant Carol Jensen (Amy Ryan), and his less-than-honest local connection Boaz (Clement), prepared to search for the kind of artifacts that will pack Lazarus' church and help ensure people of faith have something to believe in for decades to come.

Right from the beginning, Verdean's message comes off kind of muddled. At the opening gig, a Lazarus assistant tests Don by reading a letter from an Israeli official stating that Verdean's find of Samson's shears was never verified by scholars, priests, or the government. Verdean replies by holding up his book and pointing out a photograph of he and the same official, with the shears. Later, when arranging for the delivery of his first discovery, Lot's Wife (for which Don doesn't even leave the country), Boaz ends up delivering a different stone "figure" than the one Don has a photo of, with a more enhanced package. Don knows it's not the right figure, but he allows Lazarus to unveil it anyway, complete with a hysterical song by Lazarus' wife Joylinda (Leslie Bibb), and the Utah congregation eats it up. It's hard to look at these sequences and not come away with a critical view of the gullibility of true believers.

Yet, to say that Don's audience consists of saps is at odds with the fact that Don's desire to find an artifact that means something to the world is utterly sincere. Buoyed by the "discovery" of Lot's Wife, he arrives in Israel desperate to find something even better, taking the weight of humanity's willingness to believe on his shoulders as he tries desperately to discover something incredible. When he fails, he steals the head of a deceased wrestler and preburies it in the desert in order to dig it up the next day, identifying it as the skull of Goliath, complete with David's stone still lodged in the forehead. Before long, Don's courting a $10m offer from a Chinese businessman to search for the Holy Grail, with Boaz playing the devil constantly whispering in his ear, not just to take the gig (and get $10,000 for bribe money), but also to set him up on a date with Carol.

The Hesses' grasp on the film's message fully slips away from them with Goliath's skull, which is recorded by tourists and posted on YouTube. If the people's faith was rooted in Don's own word that his discoveries were authentic, it'd be less of a knock on the public, and it'd make Don's desire to deliver for those people feel more sincere, because his input really would be the deciding factor. The movie also kind of loses track of Pastor Fontaine, whose likely insincerity is never highlighted enough to make his version of faith feel like a real threat. Instead, we get Boaz, who is funny thanks to Clement's committed performance, but a pretty run-of-the-mill fortune-seeker whose only interest in Don's discoveries is what he can get out of it. Rockwell is also strong, especially in the scenes where he tries to explore the possibility of a romance with sweet and decent Carol, whose earnest devotion to Don is one of the few things in the movie that works. Had the film spent more time on developing her and Don's relationship, Don Verdean might've felt less flimsy, but it's a con man story without a con man, in which the public seems unaware they've been ripped off.

The Blu-ray
Don Verdean gets pretty standard show-the-cast-off artwork that nonetheless somehow manages to convey through the choice of colors and the slightly artificial illustration serving as a backdrop that this is from the director of Napoleon Dynamite before one even reads the caption mentioning it. Or is that just my imagination? The one-disc Blu-ray release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite case with a leaflet inside offering the owner a UltraViolet Digital HD copy.

The Video and Audio
Don Verdean looks and sounds perfectly adequate via Lionsgate's 1.78:1 1080p AVC video encode and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The film's slightly muted, often tinted appearance is clearly a directorial decision, while detail is strong, but never razor-sharp (likely also intentional). Although a surprising amount of effort went into using sound design to differentiate the movie's two primary locations (see the extras section), the result is noticeable but not particularly impressive on a technical level, still resulting in a fairly sparse track that gets the job done without much in the way of frills or flair. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
A handful of extras are included. First up is an audio commentary by director Jared Hess, which is fitfully informative but plagued with dead spots as the director gets caught up in watching his own film. Including co-writer Jerusha Hess might have livened the proceedings up a little bit. "Digging In: Behind-the-Scenes of Don Verdean" (2:27) is a fun but tragically short featurette showcasing the cast's chemistry with one another in both interview snippets and B-roll. A rare behind-the-scenes piece where the actors actually seem genuinely relaxed. Finally, "Behind the Sounds" (9:05) is a slightly stiff but informative piece with Hess and the folks at Juniper Post discussing the differences between the sound design of Utah and Israel, and the effort that went into giving each locale a distinct feel. There's something about this extra that suggests it wasn't produced for the Blu-ray (with its generic chirons and lens-flare transitions), but possibly for the post house itself.

Trailers for Mortdecai, American Ultra, Laggies, Love the Coopers, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu, and are selectable again under the special features menu under "Also From Lionsgate." No trailer for Don Verdean is included.

Although Jemaine Clement's performance as the goofy (if malicious) Boaz is very funny, and there are tidbits of a good idea in Don Verdean, but Jared and Jerusha Hess haven't quite dug the whole idea out yet. Rent it.

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