Napoleon Dynamite,” the sleeper hit that launched a million ringer tees, continues to fool people into watching the subsequent efforts of married writer/director duo Jared and Jerusha Hess. But lightning doesn’t often strike twice, or four times in their case, as the goodwill generated by their first effort has been divided among “Nacho Libre” (2006), “Gentlemen Broncos” (2009) and now “Don Verdean” without generating a new supply.
Their greatest strength has been quirk, in the sense of creating very specific oddball characters. “Don Verdean” tackles a subject far too large — religion — and loses the power of specificity to a generic sense of satire. The title character, played by Sam Rockwell, is a shaggy archeologist dedicated to uncovering religious artifacts for the purpose of increasing the zeal and belief of faithful Christians.
With help from his faithful assistant (Amy Ryan), Verdean attempts to recharge a stagnating career with the help of a preacher named Lazarus (Danny McBride), whose schtick is that he allegedly rose from the dead and married a reformed prostitute. This kind of set-up should be ripe for an indictment of such people, but these characters end up in limbo between sincerity and sarcasm.
Only one actor commits to trying to be funny, and that is Jemaine Clement as Boaz, an Israeli with a ludicrous accent and loose morals. As Don Verdean’s man in the Holy Land, he sent artifacts to him, but soon wants a piece of the American dream. In the U.S., Boaz and Don grow more desperate to fake what they cannot find, and the plot takes many insane turns.
Don’s motives are one of the many problems with the story. As he inevitably runs amok, the question of why he does what he does should have been the guiding concept as he becomes increasingly desperate. Instead, an incredibly downbeat, murky turn from the often outrageous Rockwell leaves the audience nothing to work with, watch on screen or care about.
Rockwell is an inexplicable blank in the middle of what I can only assume was meant to be an absurd comedy. There was no reason to try to turn in an understated performance while sporting the world’s cheapest, fakest-looking beard. I’m not sure why everyone (except for Clement) decided to play such a wacky story so straight. If it was to make a point about religion, they failed. If it was supposed to be a satirical comedy, maybe some jokes would have helped. If it was intended as a sincere story, why did so many ridiculous things take place?
I sort of like parts of “Gentlemen Broncos,” basically the Jemaine Clement character, but for the most part this creative pair have gone beyond sophomore slump, and it seems they stuffed all their good ideas into their first film. Jared and Jerusha Hess need to update their formula.
“Don Verdean” is currently available to rent.