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Non-Review Review: The Jesus Rolls

The Jesus Rolls is a loaded premise on a number of levels.

Most obviously, it is a film that takes a memorable supporting character from a beloved film and asks them to hold focus for ninety-odd minutes. Not all characters are designed to support a feature film, as the cavalcade of failed Saturday Night Live films will attest. It’s possible to get lucky, as with cases like Wayne’s World, but these happen relatively infrequently. Jesus might be a character who works best as part of the larger wacky ensemble of The Big Lebowski, where he exists in a heightened world of wandering cowboys, conceptual artists, pornographers and nihilists.

The risks are compounded by the change of authorship. Jesus Quintana was a character created by the Coen Brothers, and so makes a great deal of sense in their world of dysfunctional and cartoonish eccentrics. While actor John Turturro has experience as a writer and director, he is very clearly a different sort of filmmaker. Turturro’s last theatrically released feature was Fading Gigalo, released in 2013. There’s little in Turturro’s filmography to suggest that his approach to Jesus will mesh with the character’s origin in a stylised Raymond Chandler homage.

The Jesus Rolls is a strange sort of misfire. It’s a surprisingly flat film, which says a lot considering its gonzo inspirations and its bawdy preoccupations. There’s a hollowness to it all, an emptiness and a lack of focus. It lacks the energy or zeal that might excuse its paper-thin approach to its plot and protagonist, aspiring towards a weightiness that neither its characterisation nor its content can support. The Jesus Rolls often feels like a series of interlocking vignettes rather than a movie, but none of which succeed at holding the audience’s attention.

To be fair to Turturro, The Jesus Rolls is at least savvy enough to avoid some of the more uncomfortable potential problems stemming from its premise. Most notably, the film almost immediately walks back the central character’s history as a sex offender, sensing that this might not be the best moment for a film focusing on such a character. “I ain’t no sex fiend,” Jesus insists in an interview with the warden on release day. A flashback confirms that he is not. “Sometimes folks overreact,” the warden agrees.

Similarly, Turturro’s decision to take inspiration from Bertrand Blier’s Going Places threatens to steer the film in an uncomfortable direction. After all, the film has a thorny reputation for its handling of female characters, culminating in a sexual assault of a teenage girl by the two leads. Turturro shrewdly decides to tone down a lot of the moral ambiguous sexual content from Going Places. He rewrites his primary female character from a reluctant hostage to a willing participant. He also ensures that the sex in The Jesus Rolls is explicitly consensual.

These choices are pragmatic and effective. The Jesus Rolls avoids the misogyny baked into Going Places. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the film is eager to stress that its bawdiness is equal opportunity. All of its characters are incredibly horny. Jesus himself is something of an unlikely feminist in the bedroom, unable to take pleasure from sex if his partner does not. Indeed, the thorniest consent issues arise with Jesus’ manhandling of his male partner Petey, who at one stage has to insist that “no means no!” It’s unclear how funny the film intends this to be.

Instead, the approach to sexuality in The Jesus Rolls is simply strange and distracting. Turturro casts Audrey Tautou as Marie, but her primary arc in the film seems to be her drive towards accomplishing orgasm. Similarly, when Jesus finds himself in inadvertently responsible for the son of an ex-lover, his immediate instinct is for Marie to sleep with the young man and to relieve him of his virginity. The film’s preoccupations are singular to the point of being monomaniacal.

The problem isn’t necessarily that this is trashy or tasteless. Instead, the problem is that it’s boring. To pick an obvious example, The Big Lebowski was a movie that was saturated with themes of sex and sexuality, particularly with Maud Lebowski’s frank discussion of the topic serving to catch the Dude off guard. However, The Big Lebowski was a much more dynamic and interesting film. There is nothing in The Jesus Rolls that is anywhere near as evocative or as memorable as the Dude’s dream sequences, and the film in general appears a lot flatter and more conventional.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Turturro didn’t keep inviting comparisons to the Coen Brothers. Watching The Jesus Rolls feels almost like an exercise in the surreal extremes of modern cinematic franchising. The Jesus Rolls is a film that is actively and consistently hindered by its associations with the Coen Brothers, to the point that it would probably work best with a completely original character. It often feels like the film is drawn to Jesus because the character has cult appeal, and so might help the film attract financing or an audience.

Indeed, Turturro repeatedly reduces the central character to a strange nostalgia machine, recycling quotable lines and dialogue from the character’s short appearance in The Big Lebowski. “You got the balls to pull the trigger on the Jesus?” he demands of an angry hairdresser. “I’ll f$!k you in the ass, twice.” He taunts, “Nobody f!$ks with the Jesus.” Forcing a doctor to work on the wounded Petey, he threatens, “Fix him up, or I’ll stick my gun up your ass and pull the trigger – click!” Later on, he threatens a kindly couple with his pistol, “Get out of here before I stick it in your ass.”

Rather than fleshing out a quirky supporting character into a fully-formed lead, these insistent references instead serve to reduce the character to a dull catchphrase machine who serves as a constant reminder that he began in a much better movie. The problem isn’t that Turturro has pushed The Jesus Rolls in a different direction than The Big Lebowski, eschewing the Los Angeles noir trappings for the influence of European cinema, the problem is simply that The Jesus Rolls is a much less interesting and engaging film than The Big Lebowski.

These problems are compounded by the extent to which Turturro invites this comparison to the Coen Brothers. Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson has a small role early in the film as a doctor, suggesting that Turturro wants the film to be seen as more than just a direct spin-off of The Big Lebowski, but something that exists in the context of the larger Coen oeuvre. The Gypsy Kings feature heavily in The Jesus Rolls, extending their function from the soundtrack to Jesus’ first appearance to the soundtrack to his entire life.

This is most obvious in the sequences that invite direct comparisons between The Jesus Rolls and The Big Lebowski, the bowling sequences. At one point, Jesus manages a seduction game at a cheap roadside bowling alley, a sequence which threatens to tip the film over into the realm of a musical or to evoke the logic of a dream. It is the kind of aesthetic that made The Big Lebowski so charming, this intersection of the magical and the mundane. Instead, The Jesus Rolls plays the scene in a remarkably limp and matter-of-fact fashion, that magic strangely missing.

As played by Bobby Cannavale, Petey feels like he is intended as a Coen Brothers character, the comic relief idiot who shouts things like “I got blood on my balls!” and “I got so much blood on my balls!” Everywhere Jesus goes, he encounters eccentric figures who feel like they could have drifted on to set from some other quirky comedy – a hyper-diligent 99c store security guard played by Michael Badalucco to an emotionally disconnected young man played by Pete Davison.

To be fair to Turturro, while most of these characters embody the sort of “forced quirk” that has come to define American independent cinema in the Sundance era, the film’s best moment derives from his use of one these Coen-inspired supporting characters. Christopher Walken has a small role as the warden at the prison where Jesus was serving his time. Walken is mesmerising in his single scene. “I never seen anyone… lick a ball,” he explains, before they take a strike.” It’s an inspired delivery, as if it would be the most natural thing in the world to lick a ball after a strike.

Sadly, this decision to populate The Jesus Rolls with these sorts of supporting gallery gets at the film’s big problem. The film is supposed to be about two drifters going nowhere, and Turturro does structure the film so that the characters end up close enough to their starting point; very few road trip movies find characters retreading familiar ground as insistently as The Jesus Rolls, to the point that Jon Hamm’s angry hairdresser Paul Dominique looms large over the narrative even though Hamm makes his only appearance about twenty minutes into the film.

There is a germ of a clever idea in all of this, a sense in which The Jesus Rolls is a road movie for characters trapped driving around in circles. However, the characters are drawn too broadly, the narrative beats are written too generically, and film is shot too blandly for any of this to land in a meaningful way. Rather than feeling profound or insightful or even tragic, the ending of The Jesus Rolls is deeply frustrating. The film ultimately feels like watching a bunch of nobodies going nowhere.

This is a shame, given the talent involved. Then again, sometimes to just strike out.

4 Responses

  1. ‘Forced quirk’ is a good way to put it. A frustrating movie, you nailed why.

  2. What surprises me is that it was so evident that it was a terrible idea. How come Turturro found someone willing to produce this one?

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