Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) is a self-proclaimed “biblical archaeologist” who travels the globe in search of rare holy artifacts (most notoriously, he once claimed to have found the scissors that Delilah used to cut Sampson's hair). There's good reason to doubt the validity of many of Don's claims (given his lack of research, his lack of permits and his lack of hard evidence at every turn), but he's still managed to scrape together a living selling books about his glorious adventures and traveling to different churches to offer tales of his remarkable finds.
Eventually, Don catches a big break: Reverend Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride, Eastbound & Down) is enthusiastic about Don's work, and wants to serve as his exclusive financial sponsor. The church will pay for Don to track down biblical artifacts, and in exchange, Don will allow these artifacts to be displayed in the church museum. So, with the help of his trusty assistant Carol (Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone) and his Israeli colleague Boaz (Jermaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows), Don begins a series of improbably successful missions to find such treasures as Lot's wife, Goliath's skull and the holy grail.
This is a fun idea for a movie supported by an equally fun cast, so it's a little maddening to see the way Don Verdean squanders its considerable potential. The subculture of “biblical archaeology” is certainly ripe for satire, particularly given the way it seeks to provide some form of hard evidence for larger-than-life stories that believers are supposed to accept on faith. The premise behind it is similar to the premise behind creationism: find the answers you're looking for first, then find evidence to match them. Unfortunately, Don Verdean falls into a couple of common satire traps: it neglects to root its more outlandish elements in anything resembling reality, and it's utterly incapable of effectively masking its contempt for its characters.
Moments that feel even remotely convincing are few and far between in this flick, as most of the actors seem to have been asked to serve up smugly outlandish caricatures. Don is an imbecile who gets away with one lie after another just because the people who admire his work are too dumb to ask even a single question. Reverend Lazarus frantically declares that the salvation of the congregation depends on Don quickly finding artifacts that real archaeologists have been seeking for many years. The pastor's wife (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man) is a former prostitute who sings gospel songs about the importance of never questioning anything your husband says. Don't even get me started on Reverend Lazarus' ridiculous religious rival (Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth), a former Satanist who still has something of a dark side.
To be fair, director Jared Hess has always specialized in movies about dumb, quirky people doing dumb, quirky things – he and his wife Jerusha are the ones responsible for Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. Those movies are certainly a mixed bag, but the thing that makes Don Verdean feel different is that Hess doesn't seem to feel any affection for these people. He's merely mocking easy targets in the broadest, most obvious way possible, and it gets old fast.
It would be a lie to say the film is entirely laugh-free, though. Though usually-reliable actors like Rockwell, McBride and Forte are consumed by the outlandish nature of their roles, Jermaine Clement manages to wring some funny moments out of Boaz's amusing blend of laziness and opportunism. He has a knack for finding a way to put just the right weird spin on a throwaway line. This won't go down as one of his great performances, but every time the film centers on him, you start to see the enjoyably loopy comedy this could have been.
Those moments aside, however, Don Verdean increasingly feels like a slog. In the third act, it adds gunplay, car chases and double-crosses into the mix, but it merely makes the film noisier, not funnier or more exciting. It might have gotten away with its general mean-spiritedness if it actually had the nerve to turn dark, but it makes a weird bid for mass appeal by refusing to let things get too grim for any of these characters (or giving them motivations more sinister than mere jealousy and greed). I really wish this one had been taken back to the drawing board... a better, smarter version of this flick might have been a lot of fun.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2015