Star Rating: 3 out of 5
Netflix has a seemingly endless selection of movies and tv shows. Some of the titles in their selection are well known and are now considered classics like The Princess Bride, or Blade Runner, and The Office. But these titles only make up a small fraction of the Netlix library. For every one good movie, Netflix has probably about ten bad or lesser known movies. Some of these movies are just plain bad like The Haunting or Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. But, some of these movies are just hidden gems, waiting for their opportunity to shine. Waiting for someone to stumble across them and make them known to anyone and everyone who will listen. Don Verdean is one such movie.
If you were a child at some point in the 1990’s, chances are good you have experienced a little movie called Napoleon Dynamite (2004) written and directed by Jared Hess and starring Jon Heder. A few years later you might have been graced with Hess’s second movie Nacho Libre (2006) starring Jack Black. Now, almost ten years later, after wondering what Jared Hess has been doing for those ten years we are graced with his fourth movie Don Verdean (2015).
Don Verdean starts by introducing its titular character at some point in the 1990’s (using what appears to be an outdated, promotional VHS tape). Don Verdean was a world renowned Biblical archeologist. People and churches everywhere praised Don and his findings. Now, ten years later, Don Verdean and the entire field of Biblical archeology seems to have been forgotten by just about everyone except for a few smaller churches in the Bible Belt. After it seems like Don’s career is just about to end, he is approached by Tony Lazarus (played by Danny McBride), a pastor who died and was brought back to life, who wants to finance Don’s future digs in the Holy Land in order to build a small Holy Land museum and raise his church attendance after a satanist-turned-christian, Pastor Fontaine (played by Will Forte), opens up a church down the street and begins to steal members of the Lazarus congregation.
Don claims to have found the location of Lot’s wife with the help of his Holy Land liaison, Boaz (played by Jermaine Clement), who then sends the pillar of salt back to Don and Tony Lazarus. After the success of Lot’s wife, Tony Lazarus pushes Don to find bigger and more exciting biblical artifacts which leads Don on a trip to Israel to find Goliath’s skull. Running into complications on the dig, Don find’s himself creating a forgery with Boaz’s help. After arriving back in the United States and lying about their find, Don and Boaz find themselves dealing with the pressure of lying, and the pressure to find more Holy artifacts at a faster rate.
For those who are familiar with Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre (and Gentlemen Broncos, which I just learned about 10 minutes before writing this) you’ll know that Jared Hess has a unique form of humor. One could almost watch all of Don Verdean (or any of Hess’s movies) and believe it was meant to be entirely serious if it wasn’t for the over-seriousness of the actors. I would say that the entire movie was meant to be a satire of Christian culture in the Bible Belt, but after spending the last five years at a school in the Bible Belt I can assure you there is nothing satirical about the movie.
Hess does a great job of rounding out all of the main character’s in the story. This is one of the things that Hess appears to excel at. All of his films feature some kind of weird loner who want to achieve something that others find impressive in spite of their social status. Don is not necessarily a loner in this story, but he does find himself in a position where he needs to prove his relevance to everyone once again. While Tony Lazarus is a static character, Hess manages to create a character that is real enough for life. If I had any complaints about any of the characters in this movie it would be with Will Forte’s character. Will Forte is a great actor, but he always seems too cartoon-like in his comedic roles. While it’s not awful, it came across as forced in comparison to all of the other actors. On the other, hand Jermaine Clement spends his time as a completely ridiculous character, while also maintaining to stay grounded in the world Hess has borrowed.
Overall, if you were a fan of Napoleon Dynamite, then you’ll be just as much a fan of Don Verdean. Even if you weren’t a fan of any of Hess’s earlier work, you might still be a fan of this movie. It’s not at all perfect, but in a world where comedic actors just improvise line after line until one of them gets the most laughs, its nice to see something that tries to balance the line between serious and silly without worrying if the jokes hit the mark or not.