Director: Jared Hess
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement
1 Globe (out of 5)
Director Jared Hess broke through ripping off Wes Anderson by way of Alexander Payne. “Napoleon Dynamite” brought deadpan, symmetrical images to bear on a sendup of Midwestern life, arranging goofy-but-lovable caricatures in OCD frames. In Hess’ fourth film, the religious satire “Don Verdean,” gone are the meticulous shots and the careful balance between mockery and adoration. Most of the characters are just stupid, especially the religious ones, revealing the mean spirit lurking under an indie classic about a high school loner with a bad ’do.
At least the antihero is a little more complex. Sam Rockwell’s Don is a “biblical archaeologist” who, unlike Napoleon Dynamite, is painfully self-aware. He’s so self-aware he hates himself, and rightly so: Once a star of the megachurch circuit, he’s fallen on hard times, turning into a mere con artist who fleeces churches with fake religious artifacts. When the film catches up with him, he’s wearyingly presenting a rural church (run by a pastor played by Danny McBride) with a giant, shapeless pillar of salt he says is Lot’s wife.
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There’s a funny (if not too too savage) idea here, with Don and company — including mousy assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) and Israeli connection Boaz (Jemaine Clement) — having to keep topping themselves with ever more elaborate hoax-finds, including Goliath’s head and, finally, the Holy Grail. But more often it’s just mean and easy. It’s the kind of anticlerical comedy, like the similarly off-putting “Salvation Boulevard,” that makes even militant atheists feel unclean, filled with dopey zealots decked out in a Mr. T-amount of crucifix jewelry. It’s too busy making fun of its characters that it misses an actual satirical point, one about the strain some religious people go to claim their religious beliefs are based on hard, falsifiable evidence.
Even its attempts to deepen a select few characters winds up backfiring. Rockwell doesn’t go for obvious jokes, playing Don as a real guy plagued with real anxieties —a sociopath unable to stop self-loathing from pursuing a sad job that keeps him alienated. It's a touching performance, though it also weighs down the film when it needs to be sprightlier. It's a terrific turn in the wrong movie. Better at getting the ideal tone is Ryan, who makes Carol’s oblivious attraction to Don touchingly misguided, and not just moronic. By the end, when Hess goes in for a simple redemptive capper to his prickly story, you can sense a director who began ripping off superior filmmakers turning purely and depressingly anonymous.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge