A decade after Napoleon Dynamite, the husband-and-wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess—both write, Jared directs—is looking more and more like a one-hit wonder. Their sophomore effort, Nacho Libre (2006), starring Jack Black, was viewed by most as a disappointment, though it looked inspired next to 2009’s dismally received Gentlemen Broncos, which featured (among others) Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement. Both Rockwell and Clement are back for the latest Hess production, Don Verdean, which can’t even work up enough comic energy to be considered bad. This may well be the year’s most tepid movie, in any genre—the cinematic equivalent of flat, warm soda pop. It’s not that the jokes don’t land, so much as that they’re often too drab and listless to even be clearly identifiable as attempts at humor.
Rockwell is the main problem, sadly. He plays the title character, a sort of Z-grade Indiana Jones wannabe who scours the Holy Land for Biblical relics and is the star of a once-popular DVD series, though his work is either disparaged or ignored by the archaeological community. Out of the blue, Don receives an offer of patronage from Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a Christian pastor who allegedly died and then returned to life—just one of the film’s numerous not-quite-funny details. (It’s related onscreen almost exactly as it was in the previous sentence, then never mentioned again. Is the joke just that his name is Lazarus? Who knows?) Desperate to please, Don deliberately fakes having found the skull of Goliath, then winds up being blackmailed by his Israeli confederate, Boaz (Clement), who promises to keep his mouth shut in exchange for a trip to America and a date with Don’s research assistant, Carol (Amy Ryan). Soon, Don and Boaz are fabricating the Holy Grail for an eccentric Chinese billionaire (Stephen Park).
Perhaps because the Hesses are practicing Mormons, they seem extremely reluctant to poke fun at religious credulity, which effectively neuters any chance Don Verdean might have had to work as satire. Don himself is almost spectacularly dull—a true believer who becomes a charlatan out of his sincere desire to convert others to Christianity. Rockwell takes the character so seriously that he never seems to have fun; he actually comes across a lot like the recurring firearms expert Gary Cole plays on The Good Wife, complete with laconic drawl. This forces Clement to lean extremely hard on a goofy accent that doesn’t sound so much Israeli, or even stereotypically Jewish, but more nasally phlegmatic. Meanwhile, poor Amy Ryan is trapped in a thankless role that’s belatedly revealed to be half of a slow-burning romance, though the fire between Carol and Don never ignites, even when the screenplay insists that it has. Will Forte provides a bit of life in a small part as a rival pastor seeking to steal Lazarus’ flock, but the laughs he gets (by slowly rising from the ground in a crowd to ask a question, for example, and then slowly sinking back to his knees afterward) seem to have been imported from another, much more aggressively absurdist comedy. Mostly, Don Verdean can’t be bothered. Try harder, Jared and Jerusha. Gosh!