I can’t blame everyone else for not caring, but I personally want the best for Jared & Jerusha Hess. The married couple/filmmaking partners started their career as something of a novelty act with the titles Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre, but their third film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a personal pet favorite of me. It’s a nerdy, delightfully misshapen work that found the Hesses embracing their inner strange in a seemingly authentic way and I’ve made it something of a personal mission of mine to shepherd the too-easily discarded film into cult classic territory. The Hesses recently seemed poised to top that success with a pair of talent-stacked comedies going into wide release the same year. Unfortunately, their Zack Galifianakis/Kristen Wiig bank heist comedy Masterminds suffered a blow when its distribution company financially collapsed & its release was shelved indefinitely. The other movie, Don Verdean, made not even the smallest splash at the theaters and quietly slipped onto streaming on Netflix with no apparent fanfare. It seems the Hess heyday is still somewhere ahead of us (unless it began & ended with the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt craze, which seems just as likely).
Again, I can’t exactly blame critics & audiences for not falling head over heel for Don Verdean. For a comedy this deeply strange & off-kilter it’s also oddly subdued, as if the Hesses were aiming to make a lowbrow version of a Coen Brothers film. Don Verdean is a screwball comedy about four snake oil-selling religious hucksters trying to make a dishonest buck in the faith industry: Sam Rockwell as the titular “archeologist” (read: artifact thief); Danny McBride as the living “miracle” Tony Lazarus (whom The Good Lord decided brought back to life so that he could marry the hooker he overdosed with & start a ministry); Will Forte as a competing minister/former High Priest of the Church of Satan; and Jemaine Clement as a con artist producer of religious artifacts both real & forged (in an unfortunate bit of Middle Eastern Jew racial caricature). All four of these dark souls are condemnable in their exploitation of religion as a racket, which may be an indication of the Mormon filmmakers Hesses’ disgust with certain, cynical factions of Evangelicals within the Christian community. The film never aims to be a satire about gigantic institutional shortcomings within organized religion’s opportunistic hucksters, however. It’s more of a character study of a small, oddly specific group of barely human weirdos who sometimes allow their thirst for financial gains & notoriety outstrip their faith in God.
I don’t think going small & narrowly focused is necessarily a problem for Don Verdean, but it’s definitely not a comedic style that’s going to grab much attention. Sam Rockwell’s quiet, oddly undignified portrayal of a past-his-prime archeologist seemingly plucked from a Chuck Norris promo VHS scrounged up by Everything Is Terrible isn’t flashy or over-the-top in any particular way. His quiet convictions, both religious & self-serving, are hilarious in their absurdity, however. His company Holy Land Investigations is in the business of searching for artifacts like the scissors that cut Samson’s hair, Lot’s wife’s salty remains, and Goliath’s rock-cracked skull and bringing them to the “USA where they belong” in order to prove that The Bible is “true”. He may not go full living cartoon at any particular moment in his performance, but there’s plenty of unreal amusement is his statements like “Finding treasure in the Earth is meaningless unless it helps someone get to Heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise” & “What makes you think you can carbon date the wrath of the Almighty?”
Don Verdean may not be a far-reaching satire of Evangelical opportunism or an over-the-top riot of wild caricature, but I do think Jared & Jerusha Hess have a lot to say about outsized hubris and the divisions that arise between faith & financial gain in the more theatrical wings of Christianity. Their point is just quietly grounded in a muted character whose soul is just as grey-brown as the earth tone colors of his Chuck Norris cosplay. The movie only falters when it loses focus on this troubled antihero & instead follows the larger-than-life characters that color his outdated, insular world. They did a much better job of sticking to a grounded, focused POV in Gentlemen Broncos, which may help explain why that film was more artistically successful (to me anyway; neither movie was received especially well), but I still enjoyed most of what goes down here. My uncontrollable urge is to again recommend that you give Gentlemen Broncos a fighting chance, but if you already have & enjoyed what you saw, Don Verdean‘s not too shabby of a follow up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Masterminds plays out much the same way (if it ever sees the light of day in the first place). Here’s to hoping.