Jesus' Son

Friday June 23, 2000

     In an age of known quantities, "Jesus' Son" is almost indefinable. In a sea of one-note symphonies, this touching feature is bleak and comic, heartbreaking and affirmative, romantic and tragic, gimlet-eyed and sympathetic, all at the same time. It's the sweetest, most punishing of lowlife serenades, a crawl through the wreckage created by, protagonist FH informs, "people just like us, only unluckier."
     "Jesus' Son" is true to the off-center vision of Denis Johnson, a poet of the feckless and dispossessed whose celebrated literary collection is its source. Those linked short stories set in the '70s took their title from a line in the Velvet Underground drug anthem "Heroin," so it's not a shock that FH doesn't stand for "Fat Head." Not quite.
     FH, frankly, earned his name by his penchant for screwing up. But to see him only as an addict and a sneak thief, while accurate enough, is to miss what director Alison Maclean and her trio of writers (Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman) intuitively understand. With his shambling, shuffling walk and radiant smile, FH is a kind of holy innocent who never loses his childlike thirst for life no matter how much it confuses and betrays him.
     The notion of a befuddled junkie saint is not a new one, but it's almost never played with the kind of grace, humor and wistful vulnerability that Billy Crudup ("Without Limits," "Waking the Dead") manages in his best performance to date. An actor of enormous, unforced likability, Crudup carries us with him as perhaps no one else could on FH's erratic journey around America, trying to find a way out of merely staying afloat on life's roughest seas.
     "Jesus' Son" is also a major success for director Mclean, who hasn't managed a feature since "Crush," her acclaimed 1992 New Zealand debut. Mclean's feel for the American heartland in the 1970s is exact down to the music on the soundtrack. She gets disciplined, on-point performances from the excellent supporting cast (Samantha Morton, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Will Patton and Jack Black, among others), and, most important, she is able to cherish these people without sacrificing the ability to see them and their killing imperfections with complete clarity.
     FH tells his own story, but his voice-over, like that of a man telling an elaborate tale from a bar stool, is meandering, even circular. He starts in the middle, then jumps back to the beginning before reaching the end. At the center, always, is Michelle (a compelling Morton, Oscar-nominated as Sean Penn's mute foil in "Sweet and Lowdown"), the woman of his feverish dreams.
     FH meets Michelle in Iowa City in 1971, at a druggy party at an outlying farmhouse. They don't get together until a year later, and their love-among-the ruins romance, complicated by a mutual dependence on heroin, pills and whatever else is handy, is the film's core.
     "There was something wrong with us," FH says distractedly at one point, "and we didn't know what to do about it."
     When it's not following this relationship, "Jesus' Son" trails FH and his peculiar acquaintances on the kind of strange, almost defiantly comic escapades (like working in a hospital emergency room when someone comes in with a hunting knife sticking out of his head) that only junkies seem to have. These exploits rarely play well on the screen (or on the page, for that matter), but the combination of Mclean's direction, Johnson's original vision and the gifts of that trio of screenwriters makes a considerable difference here.
     Mclean strikes the right matter-of-fact tone with the hallucinatory aspects of FH's story, like the time he saw a nude woman floating by on a parachute. More critically, the film has the feel of being told from the inside, by an articulate survivor. "There is a price to be paid for dreaming," FH says at one point, and "Jesus' Son" is always aware of what that means.

Jesus' Son, 2000. R for graphic drug use, strong language, sexuality and some violent images. Lions Gate Films and Alliance Atlantis present an Evenstar Films production. Director Alison Maclean. Producers Elizabeth Cuthrell, Lydia Dean Pilcher, David Urrutia. Executive producer Steven Tuttleman. Screenplay Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman, based on the book by Denis Johnson. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel. Editors Geraldine Peroni, Stuart Levy. Costumes Kaisa Walicka Maimone. Music Joe Henry. Production design David Doernberg. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Billy Crudup as FH. Samantha Morton as Michelle. Dennis Hopper as Bill. Holly Hunter as Mira. Denis Leary as Wayne. Jack Black as Georgie. Will Patton as John Smith.

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