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Family Movie Review: Don Verdean (PG-13)

DonVerdean ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 90 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This comedy attempts to satirize various elements of the Christian faith, focusing on the competitive and capitalist nature of big churches and religious “personalities”; there is an assumption put forth in the film that everyone religious is inherently disingenuous, as well as some violence (a gunshot wound, some fighting), some cursing, some lewd sexual stuff, including religious icons that have obvious genitalia, talk about prostitution and insulting language regarding women, some kissing, and mentions of drug use.

‘Don Verdean’ suffers not only from a low-brow, limited worldview but excessive quirkiness. This film aims to poke fun at capitalist religion, but its utter unbelievability does it a disservice.

By Roxana Hadadi

A successful satire needs absurdity to work, but there needs to be believability in the goofiness. You have to trust that something ridiculous could happen to see the biting criticism of it. But where “Don Verdean” suffers is too much of the absurdity without enough of the reality, rendering its negative messaging about the big-business nature of organized religion ultimately over-the-top.

This has been a year of faith films, and when they’re not good, they’re really not good (“War Room” comes to mind). But the dramatic comedy “Believe Me” was an interesting experiment: a movie that wondered whether people working to sell Christianity as a concept were inherently unethical if they didn’t believe the faith they were proliferating. “Don Verdean,” from the filmmaking team behind the quirky cultural touchstone “Napoleon Dynamite,” revisits that question, but its affectedness is overwhelming. It focuses so much on the details, on the goofy little character traits and the bizarrely random plot twists, that it loses sight of any real narrative bite at all.

Is “Don Verdean” actually attempting to be critical of big-church Christianity, of religious “leaders” who end up filthy rich because of their followers? The film pokes at that idea, but without any real bite. It goes about it through the character of Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell, of “Poltergeist”), a sort of Christian Indiana Jones who has made a career peddling religious paraphernalia. If you want an artifact from the Bible, both Old and New Testament, he’ll find it — for a fee, of course — and his traveling roadshow used to be a major draw. But even his claim of having the scissors used to Samson’s famous locks can’t turn his luck around; fewer and fewer people are showing an interest in his work lately, and only his research assistant Carol (Amy Ryan, of “Bridge of Spies”), obviously in love with him, seems to care anymore.

But then Don gets an offer from born-again preacher Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride, of “Aloha”) to use all of his artifacts for a Bible museum that would be attached to Lazarus’s mega-church, and it seems like Lazarus is his meal ticket. As Lazarus’s wife says, “It would be like a Holy Land set in the good old U.S. of A!” But with Lazarus’s offer comes the expectation of bigger discoveries, and although Don pulls one over on the minister when he delivers a pillar of salt that is supposed to be Lot’s wife (but clearly has male genitalia), his fudging of reality is found out by his Israeli contractor contact Boaz (Jemaine Clement, of “Rio 2”), who then tries to blackmail him. Don seems to have a good life in America, Boaz thinks, and he wants that, too — and maybe a date with Carol as well.

How Don is forced to appease Boaz, and how the quests for more and more “genuine” artifacts begins to spiral out of control, takes over “Don Verdean.” But from the beginning, there is never a sense of reality to any of this. Rockwell can usually disappear into any role, but his Don is so fake and self-serving from the beginning that he’s never sympathetic. Does Don believe in his profession or not? The film ultimately seems to sidestep that question, and that throws the entire point of “Don Verdean” out the window.

Aside from Rockwell, McBride really amps up his detestfulness with his portrayal of Lazarus, and Clement similarly is intolerable. Will Forte as an ex-Satanist preacher who is a rival of Lazarus and Leslie Bibb as Tony’s former sex worker wife have their moments — especially the latter, who leads their congregation in a hilariously ignorant song about Lot’s wife (“Pillar of salt, it’s all her fault!”) — but they’re uncommon.

Mostly “Don Verdean” is about terrible, unbelievable people doing terrible, unbelievable things to each other, and any point the film is trying to make about the superficiality of current-day Christianity gets lost in the shuffle. There are ways to question the legitimacy of big-bucks faith, but “Don Verdean” doesn’t believably tap into any of them.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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