In which the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell plays a Biblical archaeologist. Like that sentence, the humor in Don Verdean stems less from gags and comedic staging, and more from the joke that runs underneath the film’s borderline sincere attempt at melodrama. However, there certainly are numerous gags and jokes right from writer/director Jared Hess’ playbook. Ever since Napoleon Dynamite Hess has been punching up the driest, calmest scenes with a massive dose of absurdity, and then simultaneously playing it all off completely straight (almost literally, in terms of filmmaking, where his camera rarely moved and his quirky attention to detail evoked Wes Anderson in broad comedy mode).
With Don Verdean Hess abandons his style a bit, and the film is worse for it. Rockwell, Amy Ryans, and Jemaine Clemont are all game, successfully pulling off Hess’ trademark undercurrent of emotional warmth. They make it watchable, despite Hess’ comedic shortcomings here. Then there’s Danny McBride and Will Forte as warring pastors, with McBride’s character employing Verdean to go on archaeological digs to find Biblical artifacts so that “souls may be saved.” I called it a melodrama because Verdean is light on the outlandish laughs that featured heavily in Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Instead, it’s Hess’ attempt at satire, and even a character study. It’s a look at one man’s struggle with corruption and faith, and occasionally nails it as both amusing and compelling, but overall ranks as far lesser than his two best films. In other words, if Napoleon and Nacho didn’t do it for you, Don certainly won’t.