There's terrific comic potential in the idea at the heart of Don Verdean, the latest shrug of a film from Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband-wife writer-director team behind Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and one that for good reason you haven't seen, Gentlemen Broncos. That idea: A fraud of a "biblical" archaeologist digs up holy "relics" for a fraud of a pastor to pass off as real to a congregation of eager believers. Better still, for farcical reasons, that archaeologist eventually must trick a mad billionaire by faking an Indiana Jones-style cave adventure, complete with skeletons, angry natives, and a New Testament wonder at the end.
That premise is priceless, and, like Indy himself, you'll probably want — after seeing what the Hesses do with it — to snatch it away and turn it over to the experts. The Hesses do to it pretty much what Raiders' Nazis had planned for the Ark of the Covenant: They make it into a bomb. It's generous to call their films hit-and-miss, as that implies that the Hesses try, really, to make a gag hit. Here, as always, they seem more engaged with curious, meaningless details than with character or jokes. You might not know, by the end, whether Sam Rockwell's archaeologist truly believes the nonsense he sells on his low-rent book tour, or whether he's actually as cruelly dismissive of his lovestruck assistant, Carol (Amy Ryan), as he seems. But you will know that when he drinks milk he winds up wearing it on his mustache.
Rockwell is charmless in a role that seems to be written that way. Verdean is a pious stiff who gets in over his head, vowing to prove the veracity of scripture by turning up ancient evidence of Bible stories — and then choosing to fake that evidence the second his quest turns difficult. That's played as a decent man's mistake rather than a con man's hustle or a fool's foolishness. Verdean is impassive, a little dumb, disengaged from everyone around him, given to silent Bible-reading even when at lunch with Carol. Even his faith remains a stubborn, simple given, neither celebrated, satirized, nor even examined. He is, in short, a terrible lead for a farce, a shut-off blank we neither laugh at nor feel for. (Ryan, for her part, finds the heart of her churchy single-mom character, but the movie gives her no help — she even has to crack a limp Les Miz joke at the peak of her big crying scene.)
Not that the Hesses are whipping up a farce, exactly. Instead, this is another of their strange-accent buddy comedies. Jemaine Clement slowly takes over the film in the broad and baffling role of Boaz, a shifty Israeli huckster eager to commit all the sins Verdean mopes over. Boaz catches Verdean in a whopper about the discovery of Goliath's skull. He immediately blackmails the stiff, demanding a trip to America and what the Hesses think an Israeli huckster considers the good life: a Pontiac, acid-washed Levis, women who look like prostitutes. Their favorite Marx Brother must have been Chico, the one who mangled the language and acted as if he wasn't trying to be funny. But instead of crafting their Chicos amusing misunderstandings or malapropisms, the Hesses are satisfied with junk like "How am I supposed to bring the money? Produce it from the anus?" At the nadir, Clement simply wheezes through one garbled, garbage line three times in a row, because the person he's talking to can't understand him.
One early scene finds Boaz shouting into a cell phone. Perhaps because they've thought of nothing funny for him to say, the filmmakers subject us to full minutes of a camel braying over the conversation. That camel is voiced by a dude, of course, for double the dopey exoticism: Here's the Hesses' idea of how funny a camel must sound on top of their idea of how funny Israelis must sound.
Still, the Hesses, at first, dutifully pickax some gold from their vein. Verdean's first major find is a vaguely person-shaped stone he insists is the pillar of salt that once was Lot's wife. ("Ninety-seven percent sodium chloride," Verdean claims, stirring one of the film's few laughs.) The pastor (Danny McBride) unveils it before his flock, pretending that the rock doesn't boast what appears to be a most unwifely penis; the pastor's own wife, the ex-prostitute Joylinda (Leslie Bibb), sings from the pulpit an impassioned ballad of connubial submission, the lesson she's taken from Verdean's discovery.
That wife gets Don Verdean's best line. She fantasizes, early on, about the reliquary her church might build for such treasures: "A holy land set in the good ol' U.S.A., right here where it should be." But in that same scene McBride, as the pastor, natters on about how his brain is so fogged it's as though Lucifer has farted in his head. That anyone got paid for the speech proves that, for real, in America you can produce the money from the anus.
Directed by Jared Hess. Written by Jared and Jerusha Hess. Starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Will Forte, Danny McBride, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Bibb, and Stephen Park.