[Screen It]

(2000) (Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton) (R)

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Drama: A drug-using loser tries making his way through life during the 1970s.
It's the 1970s and a young man (BILLY CRUDUP) is trying to find his place in the world. What he finds instead is Michelle (SAMANTHA MORTON), a young woman whose boyfriend, McInnes (JOHN VENTIMIGLIA) nicknames him "F*ck head" (or FH for short) after he finds the two making out.

A year later, FH and Michelle meet once again and FH soon finds himself hooked on both her and the heroin she regularly uses. As a result, their relationship soon resembles a roller coaster, and during their down moments, FH hangs out with Wayne (DENIS LEARY), a fellow loser and junkie.

When Wayne dies of an overdose, FH gets a job at the local hospital where he meets Georgie (JACK BLACK), an orderly hooked on pills he steals from the facility. When Michelle runs off with John Smith (WILL PATTON), and then leaves the picture altogether, FH finds himself at the bottom of the barrel.

Placed in a rehab clinic where he meets Bill (DENNIS HOPPER), a fellow patient, FH later meets Mira (HOLLY HUNTER), a woman with a tragic romantic past. While dealing with these various people, FH tries to rebuild his life as he suddenly finds meaning in it through compassion for others.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
The ability to be a successful storyteller is clearly a gift that some people have and others certainly don't. While that art form can be learned and practiced to the point of near perfection, that can never match the fact that some individuals seemingly have a natural knack for spinning tales and capturing listeners' imagination with their storytelling manner of dispensing verbal yarns.

Second only to novelists who must rely solely on the written word to tell their tales and equal to playwrights and other theater-based folk, filmmakers are obviously also storytellers, although their means of doing so are clearly different and often far more complex than their counterparts.

That, of course, is due in part to the sheer number of people involved in making a film (compared to one writer, storyteller or playwright who is still king in the theater), although when everything's ultimately boiled down, the director calls the shots. While one would certainly think that talent and proficiency would be a prerequisite for making a movie, some of those behind the camera seemingly lack the same amount of those much-needed commodities as their more successful counterparts posses, at least as far as their individual efforts are concerned.

"Jesus' Son" is a prime example of that as one can tell right away from the haphazard and awkwardly staged and executed opening that things are going to be bad. Based on a collection of short stories of the same name by author Denis Johnson, the film fails on most every level, the least of which is making any sense.

A disjointed tale of a 1970s era junkie, his suffering and eventual decision to become a compassionate person (hence, one assumes, the title - although that's about as much as one is offered as an explanation of it), the film utilizes some overused and annoying voice over narration - spoken in hindsight by the protagonist - that's supposedly designed to lead us along through the movie.

While that's bad enough in and upon itself, the resultant effect is that of a bad storyteller who suddenly remembers "important" facts and then abruptly switches gears to tell that part of the story before returning to the main thrust. As such, not only does the narrator suddenly stop his story while verbally remembering another aspect of the tale, but the film also correspondingly hits the brakes and then goes back in time to show us that part.

Although other films have previously employed similar techniques - most notably the often brilliant work of Quentin Tarantino in films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" - that not only work but also add an interesting dimension and twisty kick to the proceedings, here it only serves to derail this slow moving and awkwardly lumbering production, and thus stops what little momentum the film had dead in its tracks.

That, and the fact that we have no reason or desire to sympathize with the protagonist (due to a variety of reasons) results in a film that's both pointless and painful to watch, not only for the mind but also for one's gluteus maximus. Much like the similarly abysmal "Fear and Loving in Las Vegas" that featured essentially no plot, one-dimensional characters and useless voiceover narration, this film suffers from an unsympathetic central character. While some films can use such characters as a means to an ends of delivering a message, this one seems as empty as most of its characters' cranial cavities.

It certainly doesn't help that director Alison Maclean ("Crush," various episodes of TV series such as "Sex and City") and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman (all making their feature film debuts in that role) didn't combine Johnson's disparate stories into anything resembling a cohesive whole. As a result, the film continually sports a disjointed and episodic feel, with events and characters randomly coming and going without much apparent reason and/or effect, and most of the scenes and sequences making absolutely no sense.

In addition, the film's presumed attempts at comedy fall flat on their collective faces & funny bones. While films featuring characters seemingly and relentlessly afflicted by bizarre and comic mishaps can be both funny and entertaining - such as Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" - the effect doesn't work here. That's not only due to the picture's disjointed nature obviously disrupting any rhythm it could and should have established, but also because most of the material is lame in nature.

Although the site of a man with a hunting knife sticking out of his eye has a bizarre, black comedy nature written all over it, Maclean and company can't manage to do anything with it. And having the protagonist be nicknamed "F*ckhead" may appeal to the "South Park/Beavis & Butthead" crowd, but it's neither funny nor particularly warranted when it's first applied and then later occasionally referenced.

Given the film's myriad of problems, lead actor Billy Crudup ("Waking the Dead," "The Hi-Lo Country") simply can't do much with his character. Faced with an underwritten, underdeveloped and mainly passive role, Crudup may have the loser/junkie look down pat, but doesn't make us care about his character (other than wishing that he might O.D. so that the film will be over sooner).

Fresh off her Oscar-nominated performance as the mute girl in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," Samantha Morton (""Under the Skin," TV's "Jane Eyre") also convincingly plays a junkie, but similarly doesn't make us feel anything for her character or show us something we haven't already seen in previous and similarly themed films.

Beyond them, a series of well-known performers - including Dennis Hopper ("Speed," "Hoosiers"), Denis Leary ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Ref"), and Will Patton ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "The Postman") show up for what are essentially extended cameos, but likewise can't do much with their undernourished characters. Only Jack Black ("High Fidelity," "Enemy of the State") and Holly Hunter ("Living Out Loud," "The Firm") manage to breathe some life into their roles, but they're not around long enough to make much of a difference.

If you've ever been stuck at some party or family gathering where some blowhard was trying to tell a story but failing miserably, you'll begin to appreciate what it's like to sit through this film. Of course, and unless you're a film critic who must stay for the whole thing, you won't have to be polite and can easily get up and leave. For those foolish enough to stay, however, you'll be "treated" to a disjointed, episodic and poorly made film that's easily one of the worst of the year. As such, there's no forgiving or saving of "Jesus' Son" that rates as a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed June 9, 2000 / Posted July 7, 2000

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