Combustible Celluloid
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With: Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Michael Shannon
Written by: Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman, based on the book of short stories by Denis Johnson
Directed by: Alison Maclean
MPAA Rating: R for graphic drug use, strong language, sexuality and some violent images
Running Time: 107
Date: 09/05/1999

Jesus' Son (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Take Me To Junkie-Town

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've been going over Jesus' Son in my head for some time now, trying to piece together why this film didn't work for me. It wasn't the direction, by Alison Maclean, which is always dreamy and inspired. And it wasn't the writing, based on the cult short story sensation Denis Johnson and adapted by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman. I'm beginning to think it was a combination of things lined up together almost accidentally, like off-kilter planets.

Jesus' Son begins at the 3/4 mark when our hero FH (which stands for fuckhead), played by Billy Crudup, hitches a ride and becomes an unwitting participant in an accident. Then we flash back for the first 90 minutes or so. FH is a drifter who meets up with Michelle (Samantha Morton) and the two of them start doing drugs. They travel around and do drugs. That's about it. FH has a few funny episodes that involve a couple of jobs here and there, but the money goes for more drugs.

When we reach the 3/4 mark, Michelle is gone and FH ends up in rehab. The trouble here is that we expect the film to end at the accident, where it began. That's what they call "full circle." Then it completely shifts tone and goes on for another 20 or 30 minutes. Even worse, the rehab scenes are somehow less bearable than the junkie scenes.

The rest of the trouble comes with Crudup, who I believe is an excellent actor. But he keeps being cast in these strange roles. I think he's being made out to be another pretty-boy movie star, like Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves, but Crudup just doesn't have the star power. He doesn't pop from the screen. Morton, on the other hand, has the star stuff. She stole every scene in last year's Sweet and Lowdown without ever uttering a word. Here she has her voice, and she's unstoppable. So her absence during the last 30 minutes really leaves a hole.

Moreover, Crudup shares scenes with such stellar character actors as Holly Hunter, Jack Black (also in High Fidelity), Denis Leary, and Dennis Hopper, and he's always overshadowed. I think Crudup should begin taking character actor roles and use his chameleon power to disappear into them. It will take longer for him to break into the mainstream consciousness, but one day he'll wake up and suddenly be the next Robert Duvall. In the meantime, the powerful actor Jack Black should have had the FH role in this film.

Still, Jesus' Son should hold some interest for fans of writer Denis Johnson. Although Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt were able to make much more out of a collection of Raymond Carver's short stories with 1993's Short Cuts, Jesus' Son manages to blend its stories together into a nearly seamless narrative, sliding dreamily from one episode to the next before we even realize we've gone. And then that rude awakening sours it.

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