From the writers of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre comes a comedy of biblical proportions. Hired by an ambitious small-town pastor to find sacred relics in the Holy Land, a self-proclaimed biblical archaeologist comes up short and his attempt to cover up his failure fuels a comic conspiracy.
The Hess film aesthetic is simply a taste in cinema that I haven't quite grown to love. I'm not sure I ever will. I thought 'Napoleon Dynamite' was one of the most grating movies I've ever watched. 'Nacho Libre' and 'Gentleman Broncos' weren't as frustrating, but never piqued my interest. The same goes for 'Don Verdean.' Like Jared Hess's other films, there's a kernel of an idea floating around inside a confused screenplay trying to pull itself in one too many directions.
The title character, Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell), is biblical archeologist. The film opens up funnily enough with a VHS-quality recording of Verdean's trips to the Holy Land. "Are these the sheers that cut Samson's hair?" the footage boldly exclaims. It's like one of those horrible out-of-date educational documentaries you were forced to sit through in school when you had a substitute teacher that day.
It really does set the scene though. Here we have Don Verdean. A giant among the biblical archeologists, who has made staked his reputation on finding physical proof of the Bible's validity. Seems like an important job, but with the shoddy production values, we're not surprised to find out that Don isn't quite the monumental historian that he thinks he is. Working from his mobile home, Don seems to be more of a believing scam artist than anything.
Don's motives are murky. There's this idea that he's genuinely intrigued by finding biblical artifacts, and a truth to his personal faith. Only, we're never let in on the secret of Don's past. Has he uncovered significant finds in the past, or has he always been somewhat of a charlatan?
Don is recruited by outspoken pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride) to find proof of the Bible in Israel and bring it back to strengthen the faith of his members. Lazarus' congregation is being syphoned off by a new-age Christian church down the block led by Pastor Fontaine (Will Forte), an ex-Satanist.
Rounding out the ensemble is a wonderfully cast Jemaine Clement as Boaz, Don's right-hand man in Israel and Amy Ryan as Carol Jensen, Don's loyal secretary. It's a well-known cast of who's-who in comedy. They can only do so much with this material.
The screenplay, written by Jared and Jerusha Hess strives for memorable scenes, which people will be quoting years after they see the movie. And true to form – much like past Hess movies – this film is best remembered in snippets rather than a whole. There are vignettes of funny packed within a story that has a difficult time keeping up with itself.
Forte is great as the ex-Satanist pastor, but his part feels fleeting and underdeveloped. McBride is the same. As for Rockwell, he's great, but the character of Don Verdean is too enigmatic. While we understand that he's a believer the movie skirts around the fact that Don's faith must be truly tested when he doesn't find the historical trinkets he sets out to find. We never really understand if at one point Don was a big shot, or if he's always been this way. Faking artifacts in order to further belief. If so, how does he really feel about that?
'Don Verdean' is just too uneven, and too interested in throwing out memorable one-liners and zany situations to craft a thoroughly compelling story. While it's a more complete movie than the previous installments in the Hess filmography, there's still a ways to go to.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a single 25GB Blu-ray release. The disc comes packed in a standard keepcase, complete with a digital copy code, and a slipcover.
Don't worry too much when you first turn on 'Don Verdean' and you're greeted with a static-laden VHS-quality image. The promotional reel for Don's archeological adventures is supposed to look like that. However, the rest of the movie's 1080p imagery is neither remarkable nor underwhelming. It's adequately whelming.
As is the case with past Hess movies, 'Don Verdean' takes on a muted tone, which favors earth tones over anything else. It has the feeling and appearance of a cheap-o festival film and that's their visual aesthetic. Colors bounce around slightly, while most of the palette is browns, there are a few scenes that are overly blue. The changes are jarring and don't really make much sense given the look of the rest of the movie.
The overall appearance is soft, but fine detail is somewhat present. Close-ups reveal the most detail while mid-range shots give way to fuzzier lines and indistinguishable facial characteristics such as Don's beard. There is some banding visible, mostly in skies and in some fades. This isn't a Blu-ray presentation that will knock you off your feet. You'll likely find some issues with it, but it's not necessarily a bad transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is straightforward and lacks any bells and whistles, so to speak. There's not much here in the way of a surround sound presence, but that's not really what the movie calls for.
Dialogue is clean, which is important since most of the movie is based solely in dialogue. Even Jemaine Clement's bizarre mumbling accent is discernable. The desert scenes have some distant wildlife piping up in the surround speakers. Some city noise offers up a little more ambient sound. Not much though.
LFE is non-existent, except during the club scene where Boaz tries to court Carol. It's not a lifeless mix by any means. It just exists. At least it harbors less noticeable mistakes than the video presentation does.
Audio Commentary – Director Jared Hess provides a commentary here. You can pretty much skip this commentary. It's not engaging on any level. There are long pauses where Hess just stops talking.
Digging In: Behind the Scenes of 'Don Verdean' (HD, 2 min.) – A short, meaningless promotional making-of thing that is not nearly long enough to fit in anything of substance.
Behind the Sounds (HD, 9 min.) – Strange that the longest featurette is a look at the movie's sound design, given that it's so basic.
I never fell in love with 'Napoleon Dynamite' like so many other people did. Perhaps I just don't connect with Jared Hess' sense of humor. That's at least one explanation that illuminates the fact that I've never found myself in love with – or even in like with – a Hess film. If you're a Hess fan then maybe you'll glean some comedy from this that simply escaped me. The audio and video are middle-of-the-road considering the standards we've become accustomed to. At best it's a rental.