A couple of weeks ago on the Lost in Criterion episode for The Royal Tenenbaums, I posited, perhaps unfoundedly, that Wes Anderson is now a genre, and that Napoleon Dynamite is a film in that genre. I need to modify that assertion a bit. What Wes Anderson does for east coast elites with too much money Jared and Jerusha Hess do for rural middle Americans barely getting by. There is the same underlying whimsy, the same off-kilterness in the characters. And in the same way they are believable characters because they exist in a universe that is grounded.
But while Anderson is slowly slipping into creating wholly contained environments for his films, the Hesses continue to create films that feel grounded but askew because their film universes are places that do, or at least very easily could, exist in towns across the modern Great Plains. Perhaps their most absurd premise, Nacho Libre, is the one actually based on a true story. Anderson is certainly esoteric, and the Hesses are even more so.
All this is to say that I've read many complaints that the jokes in Don Verdean, their latest, don't land, but I think that's mostly because the reviewers aren't the ones being aimed at. I'm not trying to say that this is a film that "isn't for critics", but that that it is for a group of people who almost certainly won't see this film. I may be one of them.
The first ten minutes of Don Verdean are a spot on parody -- or perhaps just recreation -- of a genre of video, and Verdean himself of a type of person, that exists. The guy who miraculously survived a drug-fueled car accident and the convert from Satanism are both realistic backstories for small town preachers -- and they're not all Elmer Gantrys or Harry Powells, many of them are true believers, in the positive and negative connotations of that term. And sure as they are of Hell, if those two preachers ended up in the same town they'd be fighting tooth and nail for the sort of congregants who end up in churches like that. This film tries to tell a comedic tale in that world instead of a comedic tale poking at that world. This tale could be more hard-hitting, yes. But the Hesses, practicing Mormons, don't seem interested in taking the piss out of small town American Evangelicalism, just in telling a story with characters from that world. If they did, maybe Don Verdean would find a wider audience.
Verdean isn't a conman up until the moment he google's "Israelis with gigantism." He believes that Boaz is on the level until after he's delivered the wrong salt pillar. After that, Verdean's not even committing fraud because of the money, but because he's truly afraid that the truth will drive people away from Christianity (and therefore, to Hell). This is never made explicit, true, but it make sense from the inferred background. It's a mentality that runs deep in the Christian Right, one I explored in my writeup of Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas last year. Sometimes we just accept a fraud to further the Good News, sometimes we perpetrate one.
Verdean's RV home has "James 1:8" written below it's address, in the King James that's "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." Obviously this is a play from our filmmakers showing that Verdean's pursuit of fraud as support of truth will drive him mad -- and it does make him do insane things. But perhaps it applies equally to Jared and Jerusha: they want to be artists, but they can't let themselves be satirists, and so a film about religious nuts can't make fun of religion. That's a pretty unstable foundation.