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Quirky 'Don Verdean' muses on the nature of religious faith
000051.5997.DonVerdean still1 SamRockwell JemaineClement  byMattiasTroelstrup 2014-12-03 06-54-09PM
A scene from "Don Verdean," the latest film from "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess. - photo by Josh Terry
Directed by Jared Hess and co-written with his wife Jerusha, Don Verdean is a lighthearted poke at the world of biblical archaeology, a field Hess describes as an amusing fringe element of mainstream Christianity.

The films namesake, played by Sam Rockwell, is a career faith-based archaeologist who has fallen on hard times. Verdeans seminars used to pack in the faithful, but in the present day he is lucky to sell a few dusty copies of his old book.

Suddenly salvation comes by way of a preacher named Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a boisterous character who offers to fund Verdeans digs in full, as long as the archaeologist agrees to feature them at the pastors church. His motivation? A rival preacher named Fontaine (Will Forte) has been siphoning his congregation, and Lazarus thinks Verdeans relics can swing the pendulum back home.

Energized by his second chance, Verdean teams up with his longtime assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) and an Israeli contact in the Holy Land named Boaz (Jemaine Clement). One by one, they start searching out Old Testament relics such as Lots wife (a tower of stone that bears an odd resemblance to a well-endowed woman) or Goliaths skull.

Its a great plan, but Verdean and Boazs ambitions quickly begin to outpace their results, and ethical compromises slowly spin their arrangement out of control.

Hess is best known for Napoleon Dynamite, another Sundance feature, and in the time since he has also helmed Nacho Libre with Jack Black as well as 2009s Gentlemen Broncos, which also starred Clement.

Don Verdean is in line with the quirkiness of those previous efforts, and offers another stew of oddball characters, sight gags and general weirdness. Overall though, it feels more mainstream than the heavily stylized Napoleon Dynamite.

In spite of its silly sheen, Don Verdean does tap into the nature of what makes up sincere religious belief. While its characters wrestle with the ethical push and pull of their efforts, the tenuous faith of the various congregations seems to teeter on seeing physical proof of various biblical stories.

Rockwell and Clement have a good time with the material and are well-suited as a comic odd couple, though McBrides over-the-top preacher may be the most natural matching of actor and character. Ryan emotes the same daft sweetness she mastered on TVs The Office as Michael Scotts dream girl, and Forte is effective in some comparatively limited screen time.

Don Verdean probably wont replace Napoleon Dynamite on the list of cinematic accomplishments for Team Hess, but its a worthy entry to a unique portfolio.

Don Verdean was featured at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is not rated but will probably receive a PG-13 for some mild profanity and vulgarity, as well as some comic violence and gore.
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