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Those hungering for a sequel to the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski are going to have to settle for a mere shadow of that great crime comedy in The Jesus Rolls, written and directed by John Turturro. The only point of contact between the two films is the actor, given the green light by the Coens to reprise his vividly wacky role as Jesus Quintana, the ace Puerto Rican bowler who was Jeff Bridges’ arch-rival on the lanes. Though Turturro turned this small part into a memorable character for the Coens, Quintana is not so reliably funny here, especially headlining a whole movie of very intermittent charm.
The real origin story of The Jesus Rolls goes back to Bertrand Blier’s 1974 French comedy Going Places (Les Valseuses), a shaggy dog story about two hoods and a girl whose plot The Jesus Rolls closely follows. The earlier pic’s nudity, sex scenes and attitude toward women came under heavy fire at the time of its release for being scandalously vulgar. Now it’s 2019 and Turturro’s toned-down version just looks anachronistic in regard to both sex and its non-PC view of women eager to oblige all and sundry.
Initial interest may focus on its tantalizing link to Big Lebowski and a watchable cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken and Pete Davidson, but its aimless car thieves don’t seem likely to get far. It is set to come out first in Italy after its bow at the Rome Film Fest. Screen Media has said it will release the movie in the U.S. early next year.
This is the first film Turturro has written and directed since Fading Gigolo (2013), where Woody Allen played an unlikely pimp and Turturro an improbable paid stud in a story that also went after a sexual angle for laughs. Here, Blier’s randy young trio has visibly aged into their forties and fifties, creating a feeling that events are happening to grown-up teenagers. We meet Quintana on his way out of prison, good-humoredly saying adios to the warden (Walken). He has been sentenced on various counts, including pedophilia, but this charge is shown to be based on the overreaction of a father who finds Quintana and his 8-year-old son standing in nearby urinals talking about Q’s penis size. In any case, his multi-focused sexuality is one of the pic’s better running gags, and Turturro pulls the bisexual law-breaker off with casual aplomb.
Waiting for him outside the pen is his bosom buddy Petey (Cannavale). Though discomfited to find his paroled pal stealing the first car he sees, he obediently goes along for the joyride. After a flash visit to Quintana’s flushed mom (Sonia Braga), which interrupts her at an inconvenient moment with a man, he tells Petey, “She’s better than no mother at all.” On the second car heist, they meet Marie (Tautou), a lively young lady with a heavy French accent. She quits her hairdressing job on the spot to join the adventurers while her irate boss Paul (Hamm) fires a few shots at them before they speed off in his flashy car. Petey gets a thigh wound that is used for some broad comedy as he appears in revealing bandages for the next few scenes.
Marie, who casually makes herself sexually available to both the men, has never reached orgasm in her life, and it is truly painful to watch a pro like Tautou pretending to be an innocent-at-heart nymphomaniac frantically in search of sexual satisfaction. After Petey in his gauze undies rebuffs Quintana’s coaxing sexual advances for a one-on-one, the trio ends up in a threesome on the bed. But the camera stays so carefully close to the actors and the lighting is so shadowy that very little of an erotic nature is visible.
The second half temporarily loses Marie while the two men pick up a melancholy older woman, Jean (Sarandon), as she, too, gets released from prison. After they offer her cash, a gun and a nice lunch, she timidly says, “I can only thank you…in bed. You can turn the lights out…if you want.” Apparently they do, because this time the threesome takes place under even more dimly lit circumstances. Jean is clearly meant to be a touching character, but Sarandon is given too little opportunity to make her so. Jean’s virgin son Jack (Davidson), who is also just getting out of prison, joins the criminal family in the final sequences.
Turturro’s Jesus Quintana is certainly the best thing in this fluffy indie, and it’s a pity he doesn’t have a more meaningful trajectory. He gets an automatic laugh of appreciation posing in profile with his trademark purple pinkie nail, which is now supplemented by several gold rings and long braided hair. But these details are forgotten in the chain of repetitive joyrides in stolen muscle cars which, along with sex, are the only things that make him happy. All the other characters hang loose without a past or a future, beginning with Cannavale’s Petey, Tautou’s Marie and Sarandon’s Jean, whose off-the-wall monologues full of non sequiturs seem to reach for a Lebowski-style comedy but rarely click.
The affectionate nod to vintage cars extends to the retro feel of the sets and some glorious tourist shots of the woods in upstate New York. Music plays a big role in creating a jolly flamenco/salsa atmosphere around Quintana. The Gipsy Kings, Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo flash by in a jailhouse cameo melodiously strumming their guitars to “Un Amor.”
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, New Element Media, Tribus P Film
Cast: John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, Pete Davidson, Gloria Reuben, J.B. Smoove, Michael Badalucco, Nicolas Reyes, Tonino Baliardo
Director: John Turturro
Screenwriters: John Turturro, based on characters and situations by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Bernard Blier
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, Fernando Sulichin, Paul Dominique Vacharasinthu, Roberto Salerno
Executive producers: Bruce Toll, Michael Lewis, Maximilien Arvelaiz, Robert Wilson, Lawrence Kopeikin
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: Lester Cohen
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Simona Paggi
Music: Emilie Simon
Casting: Todd Thaler
Venue: Rome Film Festival
World sales: Cornerstone Film
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