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Life's Punching Bag: Billy Crudup can't seem to get it together in 'Jesus' Son.'

High Flying

Alison Maclean's 'Jesus' Son' remembers what addiction was like in the '70s

By Richard von Busack

THEY SAY, if it's not broke, don't fix it. Unfortunately, the man known as "Fuckhead" is broke and needs a fix. "FH"--as the film Jesus' Son demurely refers to its antihero--is the center of this sick-comic road film about a junkie's life.

There are several ways a film about junkies can go wrong, and likely you've seen them all: the addicts can be saintly sufferers, lost lambs of our cruel society or so hip that we ought to apologize for being in the same theater with them. Through energetic yet playful acting by Billy Crudup, as FH, and Samantha Morton as his sometimes girlfriend, Jesus' Son takes a lyric look at getting high in the 1970s. Sick, ghastly events disturb FH's attempts to go with the flow, but even fatal despair never really kills his buzz.

The title is for insiders. It comes from the Velvet Underground song "Heroin": "When the smack begins to flow/And I feel like Jesus' son." Jesus' Son is a Möbius-strip film with a coda. In voice-over, FH, one of life's punching bags, tells a tangled-up story about his random adventures on the road from Iowa City to Chicago.

Early on, he met a cloudy-eyed party girl named Michelle (Morton, last seen in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown) at a farmhouse in the middle of a snowy field in Iowa. Tommy Roe's peculiar hit, "Sweet Pea," was playing. She was wearing one of those inside-out Afghan sheep-pelt jackets when they made out for the first time.

For the rest of the movie, FH is traveling with Michelle or else is in pursuit of her after she's left him. On the way, he gets his nickname for a piece of idiocy he commits: a friend tells him, "It's a name that's going to stick--Fuckhead is going to ride you to your grave." FH is worthy of his name, and his efforts to make things better always make things worse.

He compounds the vehicular roadkilling of a rabbit with a foolish attempt to save the baby bunnies; he helps the scheme of his buddy Wayne (Denis Leary) to salvage enough copper out of a house to get something to drink. Eventually, he makes Michelle's abortion worse with the wrong off-hand comment.

A couple of celebrities show up in cameo roles--three, if Jack Black counts as a celebrity. Black, the wise-guy clerk in High Fidelity, has an uproarious scene as an emergency-room nurse who gets stoned at precisely the most unlucky minute. Holly Hunter plays Mira, a woman in Narcotics Anonymous, who fancies herself an angel of death. And Dennis Hopper turns up as someone FH meets in rehab who has to shave around the scars from a bullet wound in his face.

Director Alison Maclean directed the 1992 New Zealand lesbian-noir drama Crush. Although she's less well known than the other Anzac directors--Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion--she's just as talented, a lot less spiritual and a lot more pragmatic.

As an actor, Crudup has been gravid with promise, but he never carried it out. He had too many mourning scenes in the intriguing Waking the Dead, too many pining scenes in The Hi-Lo Country. Here, Crudup really becomes a star. He's lambent and funny. Crudup is so good-looking that his handsomeness can be a joke in itself, as Matt Dillon's is in his best movies. Certainly, Morton is vastly better than she was in Sweet and Lowdown. She has the same childlike sweetness: once, she tells FH as they're about to make love, "Pretend it's like the first time, like we're new." But Michelle is petulant and stubborn, too. FH's memory is so selective and busted up that he forgets what a royal pain his erstwhile soul mate can be.

Crudup's enjoyment of the ride and zonked-out humor give the grubby goings-on liveliness. The film is also lightened by the eclectic soundtrack, which includes everything from the great ballad by Barbara Mason "Yes, I'm Ready" to raving kitsch like Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Cherokee Nation."

Mostly, Jesus' Son evinces the authentic feel of the 1970s, the broke-down, defeated side. The consolation of the age was that the malaise stretched evenly from coast to coast, and we were all (more or less) in it together. Why do you think everyone in the 1970s suddenly decided to wear clown suits? Obviously, to cheer themselves and each other up.

While Jesus' Son gets the funny, grotty side of the decade, it also shows what it was like not to have any serious yearnings. Not since Trainspotting has there been such a merry story about people with suicidal habits, such a small miracle of a film about beatific sordidness and redemption.

Jesus' Son (R; 110 min.), directed by Alison Maclean, written by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, photographed by Adam Kimmel and starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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