Jesus on junk

Rating: NNNNNIt's a symptom of our accelerated culture that we presume that stardom is a disposable commodity, that stars themselves.

Rating: NNNNN

It’s a symptom of our accelerated culture that we presume that stardom is a disposable commodity, that stars themselves are replaceable. So we are solemnly told by publicists that actor X is the new version of star Y. It’s so pervasive a mindset that when I finally saw Christina Aguilera waving her arms and smearing melisma all over the lyrics of her last hit, I thought, “Hmm, the new Mariah Carey.”
New Mariah

Which, of course, is silly. We don’t need a new Mariah Carey. The old Mariah Carey isn’t past her “best before” stamp, as far as I can tell. She isn’t even that old.

Consider Billy Crudup, who back in the remote past — 1996 or so, when Inventing The Abbotts was released — was tagged as “the new Tom Cruise.” No evidence or indication that we need a new Tom Cruise, who’s still making big hits. But Crudup has that big, square jaw and a pretty dazzling smile, so he’s it. Heck, Party Of Five’s Scott Wolf got the tag a few years earlier, and so far his movie career is more or less nonexistent, aside from playing a soap actor in Go.

Crudup even got a Cruise role when he played Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, a film originally scheduled for a much younger Tom Cruise, and still worth seeing.

Jesus’ Son is Crudup’s second film this year. In Waking The Dead, he plays an idealistic ex-Navy officer turned lawyer/political candidate haunted by the apparent death of his wife. Like Waking The Dead and Without Limits, Jesus’ Son is set in the 70s. This time Crudup plays FH, a hapless junkie who’s worried about his pregnant girlfriend (Samantha Morton) but not enough to get off the junk.

Drizzly realism

Adapted from short stories by Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son was directed by Alison Maclean, a New Zealander best known for Crush, which hit the festival circuit in the early 90s. She hasn’t made a feature since, though she directed some episodic television, notably Homicide and Sex And The City.

Jesus’ Son is in the low-key drizzly realism school of junkie movies, which means the protagonist has the focused energy of a slug and tends to wander through events reacting inappropriately.

Crudup here seems determined to ditch the good-looking-young-future-star thing, with his horrible period wardrobe, scraggly facial hair and permanent bedhead coif. I was going to say that he does stuff Tom Cruise wouldn’t dream of doing, but Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia have certainly redefined those parameters.

When it comes to drug addiction, realism is kind of boring, since your run-of-the-mill drug addict is a monomaniac with a limited world view. This explains why the best movies about drug addicts tend to be either delirious exercises in style, like Trainspotting, or deadpan comedies like Drugstore Cowboy. Somehow,

Jesus’ Son was adapted from a collection of stories rather than a novel, and the film respects that in its rather haphazard approach to narrative. Maclean, who directs with enormous compassion for the characters, is never moralistic, but at the same time the film lacks a moral anchor.

The supporting cast jolts the movie into wakefulness — Morton bursts out of the irritating, Masina-like passivity that got her an Oscar nomination for Sweet And Lowdown, Jack Black (High Fidelity) plays a guy who works as a hospital orderly because it means he can steal prescription drugs, and Holly Hunter is a woman Crudup meets in rehab who doesn’t have bad luck herself, but is a carrier.

Denis Leary shows up briefly as part of his ongoing project of becoming the next Christopher Walken. (Check their scenes together in Suicide Kings. It’s like Leary is studying Walken, figuring, “Another five, 10 years, I’ll be doing his roles.”)

Jesus’ Son is an anti-Hollywood film with a vengeance, which means it deserves an automatic recommendation. Look, Ma, no spurious history, no goddamned James Horner score nudging our emotional responses every six seconds and no $30 million ad budget driving the movie into our consciousness during every station break.

Busy thinking

On the other hand, it’s one of those movies that’s actually more fun to think about after you’ve seen it than it is to watch. In the theatre you’re is busy thinking, “Who the heck decided that junkies are interesting in and of themselves?” That and, “Is Billy Crudup ever going to make a movie with a contemporary setting?”

JESUS’ SON, directed by Alison Maclean, written by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman from stories by Denis Johnson, produced by Cuthrell, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Moverman and Urrutia, with Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton and Holly Hunter. 109 minutes. An Alliance-Atlantis/Blue Sky production. An Alliance-Atlantis release. Opens Friday (July 7). For venues and times, see First Run Films, page 78. Rating: NNN

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