RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 1: Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son” (2000)


The Players…

Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter.

The Story…

FH is a well-meaning drug addict who stumbles backward into redemption. We’re not even close to talking about a twelve-step here. Amid his life’s wreckage of addiction and co-dependency, a near-fatal car crash and a chance to save a child’s life force FH to examine his existence and its meaning, if there’s anything to find at all.

The Rant…

Hey! So begins Volume Two of Rent It Or Relent It! This week’s entry is the first one designed with this blog in mind. No repaginating needed! Yeah, I know. Not kind of a big deal. I just figured I’d mention it since we’re starting over with “Installment 1” again and I didn’t want no confusion. I hear ya. When Marvel Comics does this kind of thing, it irritates me, too. So let’s just move along, shall we…?

What, another precious indie film? Hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, these little buggers have been popping up lately all over movieland, like mushrooms on cow turds. The fun mushrooms, mind you. And like those funky beauties, such small budget, little known actor, inscrutably scripted movies can either mess with your mind or alter your perception, in any order.

Drug allusions aside (yes, that was what they were), it’s only proper that we delve into a film about substance abuse. On the other side of the screen, dummy. Now put down the beer bong and listen up. Why proper? These flicks seldom make much coin at the box office. That’s usually because no one shows up to see them. The Standard dictates the reception had to either be tepid or outright hostile. I never said you’d ever had to hear of the damned movie (please refer to the The Squid And The Whale entry for a good example. Uh, the only example I got actually).

That kinda brings me to a point. I used to be a deejay at our local community radio station and NPR affiliate (BTW, we preferred to call ourselves “programmers” since deejay has either become trite or an epithet for the mixmasters at rave-ups, but that’s for another day). With NPR came their news programs, human-interest stories and the like. There were often movie reviews and interviews with the stars of the reviewed movie. That’s where I heard about The Squid and the Whale and also Jesus’ Son. Jeff Daniels and Billy Crudup were interviewed respectively. After listening to these shows (and this was years before weblogs came to the fore) I got to wondering, “Who’s this for?”

The “who” in question was the target audience. NPR listeners are a cagey lot. They’re not usually the first to bow to the will of pop culture. I figured if a movie got press on NPR, it was: a) of some good critical repute; b) going to get limited release, and/or; c) was made with built-in obscurity in mind. I suspected Jesus’ Son wasn’t intended to be a big release movie. Being affiliated with part of the NPR audience, I assumed this movie would’ve naturally appealed to my and others’ ersatz hipster pretensions.

I think I was looking too hard…

FH (Crudup, whose character’s name is oddly never mentioned in the film) is a slow-witted man-child seemingly drifting through life, love and addiction. Never one to stay in one place too long, nor does he seem aware that he’s doing it, FH touches hands of everyone he meets in a languid, faraway notion. We’re not tugging heartstrings here; FH is a buffoon and overall irritant. And he’s not your typical poster child for decrying drug use. He’s kind of just…there.

Anyway, amid all the random people he bumps into and scrapes he gets into, he does find love in the form of somewhat unstable Michelle (Morton), an erratic party girl with a healthy smack addiction that FH immediately takes a shine to. Naturally in love, he engages in the habits of heroin shooting and pill popping that Michelle is hip to, and becomes readily addicted to addiction and all the pitfalls that accompany it.

Michelle drifts in and out of his life (or perhaps the other way around) while FH follows a scenic and winding road through perdition by ways of keeping his multiple habits going. Whether he’s deconstructing homes with buddy Wayne (Leary) for scrap to sell for dope money, working as an orderly with whack job Georgie (Black) for ready access to pills, or finding redemption in an old age home with fragile widow Mira (Hunter), FH is seemingly doomed to be rudderless. He’ll just keep on wandering, leading a terminal existential crisis while never being released from adolescence. Or truly free from chemical dependency…

Huh. Sounds like the story would appeal to the NPR crowd. Too bad it was a load of drivel.

Our hero Crudup possesses the clear eyes and rubbery face of an adolescent. The awkward innocent to all the events that fall at his feet. He’s never proactive. This breaks a principal tenet of story: you can’t have heroes being acted on all the time to capture either sympathy and/or attention. Maybe this was what the director was intending, but 90 minutes of it was really grating.

Heroes are supposed to wade through the plot for us; take us on their journey. Problem: there was no plot. Jesus’ Son was nothing more than a series of vignettes. Again, more off-kilter episodes that FH just wanders into following the direction of addiction (which was mostly a pretty tame portrayal) wherever it may take him. Jesus’ Son is the flipside of the grimy, urban drug drama Panic In Needle Park. Where that movie was harrowing and unlikeable in a gripping way, Son plays out like Forrest Gump on smack. It was more or less a comical take on substance abuse, and not with a whit of irony.

Speaking of irony, only not really, why was Jack Black in this movie? I know it was another non-plot point of FH’s quest for drugs, and Black is notorious as an amped up clown in his roles, but never have I seen him so shoehorned into a character that tries to lean on his strengths as a comic actor in such an inappropriate manner. Watching the movie you expected him to bust out with air guitar, which would’ve been apropos of anything and yet you’d expect it. It was another lull in the movie’s meandering pace.

Before I overload the bitch switch, there were several highlights that just couldn’t be ignored in the film. Shot in muted colors, Son had a real 70’s feel to it, appropriate because of the timeline. There was a gritty, earth tone hue to the set and it coaxed out a very laidback vibe that married well to the narrative, such as it was. Another great visual aspect was the make-up job. For such a slanted comic affair on drug use, the etchings of FH’s rubbery face over what felt like months highlighted his progression into substance abuse with disturbing accuracy.

The movie is kinda rife with cameos, and the best performance was the one delivered by Dennis Hopper. Ironic that one of cinema’s most offbeat, unhinged personalities provided a little stability in an otherwise frayed film. He only had like 12 minutes of screen time, but he made them the most memorable. Almost always a gold star for Hopper.

Apart from all that, there wasn’t much to like about this movie. It really tried my patience. Crudup isn’t much of a leading man, and his dopey (ha!) character FH was neither endearing nor sympathetic. He’s just a wistful moron, even more so when he kicks his drug habit. His interactions with his fellow cast members lacked chemistry, and the results were a pretty wooden affair. The pacing, although good, was too slipshod to hold my attention. Don’t get me started on the narrative flow. The whole mishmash caused me to drift in and out of the story, not unlike FH’s journey.

Oh well. To be perfectly honest, despite what I’ve written about,  I really don’t remember a lot of this movie. I used to suffer from this malady due to watching movies drunk, and only having a passing notion to what I thought I had seen. Jesus’ Son was accompanied only by Snapple, and it didn’t stick so well either. I guess I may have to give up reviewing indie films for this blog. They only scratch the surface of The Standard anyway, and viewing them requires a kind of eye that has willingly fallen blind by me. If so, then I can go back to being snarky and vicious, which is the waller I was happily floundering around in when I began this here project.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Not everything pitched on NPR is of a culturally enriching endeavor.

Stray Observations…

  • “Somebody’s going to get hurt over this.”
  • I hope that the patient with cerebral palsy was not intended as comic relief. It seemed just on the cusp of inappropriate.
  • “Where’s my hunting knife?”
  • Another thing: this entire movie had a very disjointed three-act structure. It was very difficult to discern where the climax was, if there was any at all.
  • The title Jesus’ Son was a lyric lifted from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” and not of some messianic undertone. At least, not directly. Trivia!
  • “What a lousy birthday.”

Next Installment…

Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve (but he tries) as Superman Returns.


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