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What a Long, Strange Trip

Denis Johnson's junkies drift along in Jesus' Son, and so do we

Director Alison Maclean, from Canada by way of New Zealand, turns her camera on the American landscape -- or, more accurately, the underbelly of the American landscape -- in Jesus' Son, an uneven, but often effective, adaptation of Denis Johnson's autobiographical book.

Billy Crudup stars as a thoroughly marginalized character known to his friends as Fuckhead (or FH), in honor of his amazing propensity to screw everything up. When we meet FH, he's standing by the side of the road in the pouring rain, trying to hitch a ride. When a family miraculously picks him up - what family with kids would stop for a young solo guy? - he has a premonition: "I knew we'd have an accident in the storm," he announces, starting the voice-over that guides us through the rest of the movie. But his desperation is such that he ignores the omen. A few minutes into this thread, however, he interrupts the narrative -- "But I get ahead of myself…" suddenly flashing back to Iowa City, 1971, three years earlier, to explain how he met Michelle (Samantha Morton), the first grand love of his short, pathetic life.

What follows is a series of episodes about FH and Michelle, FH and his various low-level jobs, FH and a series of deranged male cronies. FH is, among his other less-than-admirable qualities, a junkie, and even though he seems to be telling the story from some post-smack perspective, the movie's pacing and continuity have the loose, rambling feel of stoned retrospection.

Much of Maclean's strategy seems determined by a fidelity to her source material: Johnson's book is a series of loosely linked short stories. The conventional approach for a film adaptation would have been to lift a few elements and threads and inflate them into a "plot." But Maclean -- and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman -- were clearly attracted to the nonplot skein that runs through the book, the gentle, nearly formless progression of FH's character. Even though the book jumps around at least as much as the film, it has a beginning, middle and end. Or, more accurately, it has a beginning and an end, with a bunch of other stuff in between, some of which could be shuffled around without damage.

For most of the film, this faithfulness to the episodic nature of Johnson's book works well: No real person's life ever has the sort of neat dramatic structure we expect on screen, least of all the disjointed, peripatetic life of an unstable guy like FH. To have added a "plot" would have destroyed what is one of the film's major achievements -- giving us a sense of the utter unanchored aimlessness of FH and his flickering connections to other people.

But it is difficult to overlook the drop in energy the film suffers at about the three-quarter mark. Some of the rearranging of chronology and conflation of characters does impose at least a ghost of a structure on the proceedings: Even though Michelle is absent for major stretches, FH's obsession with her hangs over those first three quarters. When she suddenly and irrevocably disappears from the story, we are cast adrift. Everything that follows is anticlimactic, or like the first act of an unfinished sequel.

Stylistically, Maclean employs a combination of flat, affectless narration and drug-induced surrealism. Many viewers may be reminded of Trainspotting, but the more important model is Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant's brilliant breakthrough film, which managed to impose, more successfully, a dramatic structure onto a very similar set of characters. All three films deftly interweave humor and horror in their most gruesome scenes.

Jesus' Son makes good use of its actors. Crudup, despite his leading-man looks, gives FH a hangdog helplessness that keeps his potentially loathsome character sympathetic. Likewise, Morton -- in a role nearly the opposite of her Oscar-nominated turn in Sweet and Lowdown -- radiates an angelic sweetness even at her slovenly, drug-addled worst.

There are no other really substantial parts. Dennis Hopper contributes his iconic self for one amusing scene, and Denis Leary, Will Patton and Holly Hunter all show up briefly and effectively. But in this distinguished cast, it is once again Jack Black, hot off his triumph in High Fidelity, who stands out, as a hospital orderly whose lunacies, while not so different from FH's, are mysteriously untouched by the sense of doom that dogs poor FH.

 
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