Your Own Impersonal Jesus

Billy, don’t be a hero: Crudup, with Morton, in Jesus' Son.
photo: Larry Riley

Alison Maclean's chilly, mopey materialization of Denis Johnson's story cycle Jesus' Son might be the supreme screen portrait of '70s drug culture, except there's very little culture. The film's lovable dopenik, referred to only as Fuckhead and embodied in a guileless trance by Billy Crudup, spends the movie of his life between places, waiting for something, waking up in the dead center of nowhere, or wandering rain-sodden highways. Talk about unreliable narrators: FH hallucinates, jumbles his time line, chases after free-associative memories, and focuses on ephemera, and the film leaps and lollygags with him. An opening car crashdoesn't get completely told until deep into the first hour; like most things about Jesus' Son,its narrative frazzling is ingenious and smart but self-consciously so. (Example: the split screen Maclean uses to show Fuckhead getting rescued from an OD as a buddy dies in another room.) The blowing-leaf form of My Own Private Idaho had an organic, risky quality that Maclean misses here, and for all of its charming messiness, Fuckhead's odyssey of cheap rooms and scag buddies leaves no pressing questions unanswered.

The vignettes have a hilarious integrity, particularly the hangout with a Stetson-sporting hot dog (Denis Leary on fire) who takes our easygoing hero to rip out an empty house's wiring and sell the copper for a fix, and the deadpan sketch-comedy of Fuckhead and a pill-scarfing buddy (Jack Black) working as very stoned hospital orderlies the night a man calmly wanders in with a hunting knife buried in his eye. (Sequences with recoverers Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter are impeccably performed but negligible.) Much of Fuckhead's tribulations, however, focus on Michelle (Samantha Morton), an evasive junkie sprite whose romantic demands deaden the movie's nerves long before her beleaguered boyfriend goes to rehab.

Filthy with talent though he might be, Crudup seems attracted to passive characters, and here as before he's accomplished (with a sublimely retarded walk) but never dazzling. He didn't have much of a chance: Like so many novels that beckon filmmakers, Johnson's is largely attitude and rumination, and though Maclean uses every trick available to make up for the missing inner voice, we never get into Crudup's mellow loser like we should. Maclean's got an incisive eye, but it's poised on the outside of the terrarium looking in.

A sunset painted on black velvet by comparison, José Luis Cuerda's Butterfly bears no relation to the 1981 Pia Zadora landmark, though like me you may pine for a Pia-in-the-tub scene not long in. Rather, it's boilerplate Miramax: a sentimental import with lovingly photographed Euro locales, an adorable kid (Manuel Lozano) learning about life (and watching a randy couple rut in a haystack!), a crusty old man (Fernando Fernán Gómez) dispensing wisdom, a tsk-tsk-ready historical trauma (the ascent of the fascists in 1936 Spain). Originally titled The Tongue of the Butterfly (a title that belongs in Pia's oeuvre), Cuerda's unconvincing mush could warm the innards of only the truly desperate, or those for whom seeing Cinema Paradiso was a transcendental moment.

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