Movie review: "Don Verdean" an out-of-place quirky comedy among holidays

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

"Don Verdean" is a pretty strange offering this time of year. Nestled among the Oscar contenders and family films, we have the latest offering from the creator of "Napoleon Dynamite." Is it quirky? You betcha!

It's also sporadically funny, thanks mostly to a stellar cast that ought to have something better to do.

Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a self-claimed Biblical archaeologist. Some major findings in the '80s catapulted him to fame, but times are tough, and Verdean is desperate for his next big discovery.

With an eager assistant by his side (Amy Ryan), Don connects with his contact in the Middle East, Boaz (Jemaine Clement) for leads. Eventually, his desperation turns him into a con man.

Director Jared Hess' second film after the unexpected cult success of "Napoleon Dynamite" - he also did "Nacho Libre" - possesses the kind of dry humor one would suspect.

He rounded up a hell of a cast for this type of stuff, too. In addition to the aforementioned stars, there's great support from rival ministers played by Danny McBride ("Eastbound & Down") and Will Forte.

The assembly of this cast all but guarantees laughs, which often come at the expense of stereotypical people of faith. "Don Verdean" isn't terribly mean-spirited in this approach, but the "War on Christmas" crowd need not apply.

I will always love Sam Rockwell, but he's due for a better project. Still, he gives Verdean a humanity that's a nice touch. He's a con man, but a reluctant one, and as he's pushed deeper into the con, he's also regretful.

Clement lays on the thick accent for laughs, but he's better in his early release this year, "What We Do In the Shadows." No surprise there, as that's probably my favorite comedy of the past year.

As with his earlier films, Hess is good at setting up the quirk, less good at taking it anywhere. An enjoyable first half wears out its welcome. There's a better movie hiding in here with some plot improvements.

Still, if you're in the mood for a diversion from the more typical holiday offerings, "Don Verdean" has enough naturally funny people to be good for some solid chuckles if you dig hard enough.

"Don Verdean"

Opens Friday

2 1/2 stars