Jesus’ Son takes us down a bumpy highway previously traversed in the fiction of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and their followers, and, on film, in Easy Rider and its many imitators, as well as Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. This collage of vignettes drawn from Denis Johnson’s short story collection of the same title charts the wanderings of Fuckhead (Billy Crudup), a 20-ish drifter stumbling through the lower depths of several Midwestern cities before experiencing a spiritual awakening in the Southwest.
Although filmmaker Alison Maclean and her trio of screenwriters scramble their tale’s chronology, shuttling back and forth through a five-year period of Fuckhead’s misadventures, Jesus’ Son resolves with the predictable redemption indicated by its title (drawn from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin”). I doubt that many moviegoers need or wish to experience yet another downward-path-to-grace saga. However, if you have the stomach to take this journey one more time, you’ll be rewarded by some impressive roadside attractions, among them a gallery of striking performances and a few surprising, smartly executed surrealist touches.
Fuckhead (so named because his efforts to assist the hapless creatures he encounters generally backfire) is a showcase role for Crudup, a schoolmate of co-writer and co-producer Elizabeth Cuthrell. The dynamic young actor’s resourcefulness and magnetism provide a focus for the fractured narrative. Much of the movie’s pleasure comes from watching a panoply of emotions play upon Crudup’s sculpted face. Following modernist practice, the filmmakers deny us any information about Fuckhead’s background and psychology, forcing Crudup, who appears in almost every shot and provides non sequitur voice-over commentary, to build his character entirely on behavior—a challenge he meets admirably.
Most of the other roles are eccentric cameos played by performers who specialize in oddballs: Dennis Hopper (a philosophical rehab patient), Holly Hunter (a partially paralyzed woman who has outlived a multitude of husbands), and Denis Leary (a junkie who trashes his own house to obtain drug money). Samantha Morton, fresh from her mute doormat role in Sweet and Lowdown, again glazes her eyes and bares her baby teeth as Fuckhead’s on-again, off-again heroin-addict girlfriend. (It’s difficult to imagine Morton playing a character without some severe psychological or physical impediment.) The standout supporting player is the least known: Husky Jack Black is creepily uproarious as a pill-popping hospital orderly, the movie’s freakiest yet most endearing denizen.
Although an opening title and the pop-music score indicate that Jesus’ Son is set in the ’70s, its skid-row settings are timeless, reminding us that squalor remains oblivious to evanescent styles and trends. Maclean fills her second feature-length film’s grungy spaces with the odd shifts of mood and tone that distinguished her 1992 Crush, an unsettling psychological drama set in New Zealand about an obsessed woman who seduces a writer and his daughter. Intermittently, Maclean slips out of the film’s to-hell-and-back narrative noose to create some startlingly original visions. Emergency-room cotton balls burst into song. Fuckhead experiences a Sacred Heart epiphany in a laundromat and has a vision of angels at a drive-in movie. Moments like these not only presage Fuckhead’s spiritual rebirth but suggest what Maclean and her cast might be capable of if they applied their considerable talents to fresher, less forbidding material.
Having suffered through too many thrillers driven by puerile premises—demonic convicts hijacking a plane, a car thief forced to steal 50 vehicles in a single night to save his kid brother’s life—I found the prospect of watching an elemental man-against-nature struggle especially bracing. And The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger’s 1997 best-selling nonfiction novel, would appear, at least superficially, to be an ideal choice for screen adaptation. This true story of the six-man crew of the Gloucester, Mass., fishing boat Andrea Gail battling the 1991 “Storm of the Century” promised to resurrect the vanished screen genre of seafaring yarns such as The Sea Wolf, Moby Dick, and A High Wind in Jamaica. But that promise is betrayed by screenwriter Bill Wittliff and director Wolfgang Petersen, who reduce Junger’s page-turner to an un-see-worthy vehicle.
The first sentence of Junger’s book announces the fate of the Andrea Gail’s crew. By withholding this information from the movie audience, adapter Wittliff intends to transform the story into a wave-hanger, but he hasn’t the vaguest notion of how to build suspense. In the film’s dilatory opening reels, we’re introduced to the main characters, all of whom come equipped with cliched back stories—thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled romances, broken marriages, grudges against peers. Disappointed by the season’s subpar swordfish hauls, Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), involved in a mildly flirtatious relationship with rival captain Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), decides to make an extra end-of-season run to change his luck. He’s joined by Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), who plans to settle down with spunky divorcee Christina (Diane Lane); Murph (John C. Reilly) and Sully (William Fichtner), who, for obscure reasons, detest each other; Bugsy (John Hawkes), who consistently strikes out with women; and Alfred (Allen Payne), a Jamaican who, in a reversion to racist stereotyping, is characterized only by his skin color and cocksmanship. What little interest these banal minidramas hold is undercut by mumbled dialogue poorly mixed beneath intrusive music and ambient sounds.
The Andrea Gail crew departs Gloucester unaware that a hurricane and several frontal systems are about to converge and create one of the most violent storms in recorded history. A poor catch impels Billy to press beyond his customary fishing waters to the remote Flemish Cap, where his men land a full cargo of swordfish. But their ice machine breaks down, forcing them to hurry back to shore before the fish spoil. That’s when they run into the storm that threatens their survival.
Presumably, German-born Petersen was chosen to direct The Perfect Storm on the basis of his 1981 submarine thriller Das Boot. (I doubt that his subsequent misfires, including the aptly titled The NeverEnding Story, Enemy Mine, and Shattered, would have recommended him for the job.) This time out, almost every artistic choice he makes diminishes involvement with his story. Rather than encouraging the viewer to feel like part of the crew in order to experience the tension as the elements erupt, Petersen jarringly intercuts a poorly developed subplot in which a yacht headed for Bermuda becomes caught in the storm, initiating a tricky rescue attempt involving a Coast Guard vessel and an Air Force helicopter. Although this secondary episode yields the film’s most dynamic action sequence, we learn nothing about the yacht’s three-person crew, whose plight distracts us from the fate of the Andrea Gail.
The Perfect Storm’s final half-hour, which focuses on the ship’s efforts to ride out the storm, should be its cinematic high point but instead turns out to be peculiarly tedious—30 minutes of shots of waves agitating the vessel, accompanied by ear-shattering noise and James Horner’s excruciatingly bombastic musical score, which render the crew’s anguished monosyllabic exclamations unintelligible. Petersen frames most of these images from an omniscient, high-angle perspective that further impedes our empathy with the endangered fishermen. Worse still, the computer-generated sea squalls are less convincing that the old studio-tank tempests of Hollywood’s golden age. Back then, at least, they used real water to rock their miniature boats. The Perfect Storm’s giant waves appear oddly insubstantial and therefore unmenacing. Unlike Titanic, a sappy movie worth enduring for its spectacular climactic special effects, Petersen’s film runs out of steam long before its fadeout.
Given little opportunity to deliver dialogue, let alone develop characters, the cast deserves no responsibility for the movie’s failure. And, given that Wittliff’s writing runs to platitudinous utterances such as “So this is the moment of truth. So this is where we separate the men from the boys,” the actors would have been better off improvising their lines. One of the most rewarding elements of Junger’s book is the amount of regional history, fishing procedures, and oceanic lore he incorporated into his tale. Wittliff jettisons most of this information from his screenplay, and what little remains is useless. Intermittently, subtitles tell us how far the Andrea Gail is from Sable Island, but because it’s never quite clear where that island is, who cares?
Watching Clooney and Wahlberg reunited in this noisy, uninvolving snoozer, I couldn’t help recalling their previous teaming in Three Kings, a movie so crammed with thrills, dark humor, outspoken political commentary, and formal daring that it virtually exploded on screen. The Perfect Storm takes a giant step backward, to the era of Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and other dumb, expensive, impersonal productions that, in every sense of the term, deserved to be dubbed disaster movies. CP