Jesus' Son
Billy Crudup USA, 1999. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Will Patton, Greg Germann
Writers: Elizabeth Cuthrell, Oren Moverman, and David Urrutia, from the short stories of Denis Johnson

Cinematographer: Adam Kimmel

Producers: Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Lydia Dean-Pilcher

Director: Alison Maclean


Grade: B- Review by Jeff Vorndam

I 'm not sure what prompted Alison Maclean to direct an adaptation of Denis Johnson's short stories about a heroin junkie named Fuckhead (hmm, that name draws a red flag on my spellcheck for some reason). There's no discernible plot, merely a string of incidents, and this wouldn't be the first time a foray into drugs followed by redemption provided the subject for a film. Nevertheless, Maclean does what she can with the material and is helped substantially by winning performances from Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, and a scene-stealing Jack Black (High Fidelity, Tenacious D) (Mr. Black should just add "scene-stealing" as a legal prefix to his name). The result is a largely charming, slightly overlong film whose reach exceeds its grasp.

The film's title seems to imply some sort of spiritual text, and indeed Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) can be seen as a bastard child of Christ. He shares Christ's compassion, but lacks the divinity and discipline to provide much help. His journey is one of small epiphanies that finally culminate in an acceptance of life and love. The film takes place over five years in the 1970s, sketching the semi-important moments in Fuckhead's life. The vignettes are linked together through Crudup's conversational voice-over, which sounds like it comes straight from the pages of the book but is delivered with an easy-going skill that approximates the feeling of a person spontaneously recalling incidents from his past.Crudup and Morton For example, a scene might start and Crudup's voice will break in and say, "wait, let me back up a bit here" and we switch scenes to events that take place three years earlier. This keeps the tone whimsical rather than lamenting; the film would be detestable without its ebullient caprice.

Samantha Morton plays Michelle, Fuckhead's druggie girlfriend, with whom he falls in and out of love. Her character is underwritten and appears as more of a force than a person. Their scenes together are largely flat and uninspired, despite obvious attempts at lyricism in the editing room. It's no surprise when she dies from an overdose, and the lack of emotional impact the scene carries is a testament to the film's "been there, done that" quality. Other characters drift through Fuckhead's life like the recently divorced Wayne (Denis Leary), who takes him on a bizarre scavenging expedition, and Bill (Dennis Hopper), whom he meets in rehab and who blathers nonsensically as only Dennis Hopper can (though more subdued than usual). The highlight of the film takes place when Fuckhead gets a job as an orderly at a hospital where he and co-worker Georgie (Jack Black) take more pills than they give out. The dialogue is absurdly literate, and the situations (including one in which writer Denis Johnson makes a cameo as a man with a knife stuck in his eye) are surreal. It's a hilarious section of the film, and my fondness for it seals my recommendation.

It's disappointing that the last part of the film, after Fuckhead has sobered up, moves so slowly and lacks the vibrancy of the earlier scenes. The cinematography is much lighter, and it's obvious that Fuckhead has finally turned a corner as he settles into a job writing a weekly newsletter at an assisted living facility. He's also able to look outside himself now, and recognize that he can do good in the world. The film portrays this with some symbolic gestures at the end that aren't convincing enough to appear as anything more than a blatant attempt to correlate Fuckhead's experience to Christ's. Jesus' Son is a strange film in that its best scenes come in the middle. Most films start strong and falter, and a few pick up steam as they go along. Jesus' Son is a trip with a brief high.

Review © April 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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