Junkie odyssey wants to take you higher

Movie: Jesus' Son

Our Rating: 4.00

If Jesus had actually sired a son, it's doubtful he would have named him Fuckhead (or FH for short). But if his son had been a screwed-up, misfit junkie -- like the title character of Alison Maclean's adaptation of Denis Johnson's tapestry of short stories -- the moniker would have been wholly appropriate.

Somewhat similar to "Drugstore Cowboy" but with a much more zealous knack for macabre humor, "Jesus' Son" is the ultimate addict's memoir, one told by a protagonist who, no matter how hard he tries, seems to ruin everything he touches. Of course, the dope and booze don't help in minimizing the chaos.

Though the film presents us with an assortment of seedy, quirky and generally miserable characters, its tone is never one of judgment. Instead, Maclean views the world through the eyes of FH (Billy Crudup), whose passion for helping others seldom meets with success. The nobility of his earnest, possibly futile actions is solely ours to decide. The script jumps back and forth through time as an older (and more sober) FH tells his story in a rambling narrative. The structure allows many of the oddball supporting characters to star in their own minisequences. Maclean makes the most of these segments by casting the ancillary roles superbly and keeping them infused with honesty.

Hiding behind a bushy mustache and cockeyed cowboy hat, Denis Leary gives a haunting performance as Wayne, a fellow addict whose life has just about reached rock bottom. Unusually restrained, Leary summons up a sincere detachment. And Dennis Hopper sinks deeply into the role of Bill, a lovable loser FH meets when the latter takes a job at a nursing home. Hopper's vignette -- in which Crudup is seen giving him a shave -- runs less than five minutes, but it's enough time for Hopper to make a strong impression.

Direct from his well-received performance in High Fidelity, Jack Black mines plenty of humor from the part of Georgie, a pill-popping hospital orderly who signs on to FH's graveyard shift in order to raid the medicine cabinets for a cheap score.

In one scene, a man enters the hospital with a hunting knife buried in an eye socket and lodged in his skull. It's at once gruesome and extremely funny, particularly as Black's Georgie (high as a kite at the time) tries to take matters into his own hands.

Holly Hunter appears briefly as Mira, a wheelchair-bound former addict whose luck seems to run along the same course as FH's. Like visiting dignitary Hopper, Hunter is a standout.

While the majority of the film is a jaunty travelogue through FH's life in the bleak Midwest of the 1970s, the film's core is his on-again/off-again relationship with a heroin addict named Michelle (Oscar nominee Samantha Morton). The pairing is clearly doomed, yet Crudup and Morton so fully embody their characters that we find ourselves hoping that things will somehow work out, even as we watch their lives crumble before our eyes.

Morton's work in "Jesus' Son" bolsters the hype that's surrounded her since Sweet and Lowdown, revealing her as one of the most promising young actresses on film.

The film's nonlinear construction is further emphasized by Adam Kimmel's dreamy cinematography, which evokes the feel of faded memories. The period costumes and set designs -- which in '70s-based films and TV shows often reflect wishful recollection more than reality -- are also dead on.

While FH never achieves an actual, full-fledged redemption, the film shows his progressive growth as he begins to work on conquering his addictions. Time after time, he strives to be a savior, yet his personal demons always seem to derail him. In the end, he must first heed the Biblical injunction to save himself before he can truly help anyone else.

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