The Jesus rolls on in a spin-off where the weakest part…is the Jesus.
Twenty two years after the Dude muddled his way into viewers hearts and the common vernacular, we get a spin-off featuring one of his antagonists, Jesus Quintana. Now, I know I didn’t ask for this. I suspect many fans of The Big Lebowski didn’t ask for this. Even the Coen brothers didn’t really ask for this (they did sign off on John Turturro reprising his character, but have been emphatic in shooting down fans’ hopes of a Lebowski sequel.) But here we are in 2020, and The Jesus Rolls.
For all of my trepidation, I came away from The Jesus Rolls with positive feelings towards the film. It’s not what I wanted. It’s not without major flaws. But at the end of the day, almost in spite of all its choices, the film manages to communicate itself on an emotional level.
The Jesus Rolls (2020).
After another stint in jail, Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) gets out on parole. He meets up with his friend and fellow jailbird, Petey (Bobby Cannavale), and promptly steals a hot-rod. Returning the car, they get in an altercation with the macho hairdresser who owns it, and wind up fleeing with his assistant, Marie (Audrey Tautuo) who happens to know Jesus. The three set off on a misanthropic road trip filled with stolen cars and lots of sex.
A Quixotic Journey.
John Turturro has had Jesus Quintana in his sights for a long time. Longer than even the twenty two year span separating this film from its spawning ground, The Big Lewbowski. Turturro fashioned Quintana out of a previous character, notes from the Coens, and acquaintances. He says he knew that the Jesus was always going to be bigger than just a few stolen scenes in the misadventures of the Dude.
To that end, he’s been working the material since at least 2002. In 2016 he got the Coens’ blessing on a spin-off, and after a little more studio haggling, started filming in 2018. That’s a long journey from idea to finished product.
To further complicate matters, The Jesus Rolls is a stealth remake of a French film, Going Places, which is notorious for its nihilism and misogyny. Creator Bertrand Blier was apparently happy with Turturro’s script…which given his body of work could be seen as a dubious blessing.
So, we end up with a film that tries to weld a broad bit-character from a 1990’s wacky comedy onto a bleak and troubling art house film from the 1970’s. What could possible go wrong?
I Will Now Tell You What Went Wrong.
Turning a villain into an anti-hero takes a deft touch. This is doubly true for a villain crossing genres; triply true for one who is most famous for pederasty. The Jesus Rolls gormlessly ret-cons that last bit right away; Jesus was talking to a kid at a public urinal, the kid snuck a peak at his junk, and an uptight square saw it and got him arrested. This could have been handled in such a way as to make Jesus empathetic; like lots of people of color, he’s presumed guilty until proven innocent. It could explain his antisocial behavior; he’s pissed about becoming a felon for a simple conversation.
It’s not, and it doesn’t.
And it brings to the forefront the discomfort of Turturro, of Italian American ethnicity, playing a heavily stereotyped latino man. In 1998, maybe Turturro’s bravado and comedic timing could obscure his hairnet, accent, and mannerisms. In 2020, it doesn’t really fly.
It also highlights my biggest criticism of the movie: Jesus Quintana does not need to be in this movie. When he reprises his Lebowski mannerisms and catchphrases, it feels gratuitous and tacked-on. The meat of the story has nothing to do with that Jesus Quintana. This is essentially a different guy who dresses the same and occasionally goes bowling.
What the Movie Does Right.
While Turturro may not update Jesus Quintana in a satisfying way, he sure does update Going Places effectively. The events of the two films are essentially identical (although some of the worst scenes – a breastfeeding woman being harassed and a teen being abducted and deflowered – are mercifully changed.) What gets updated is the way we relate to the events.
Jesus and Petey are not the nihilistic punk rock anti-heroes of Blier’s film. Sure, both pairs are antisocial losers who commit petty crime and live just to bed women, but the camera regards them differently. Turturro chooses different moments to linger on and different tones to adopt. Instead of being macho thugs who dominate women for power, Jesus and Petey see themselves as great Latin lovers, defining and enhancing their worth by pleasuring women. It’s not woke as fuck, but it’s a far sight less offensive and way more nuanced.
…And Susan Sarandon.
For me, the film comes to life when we meet Susan Sarandon’s character. Jesus and Petey go cruising to the local women’s prison, on the assumption that a woman deprived of sex will appreciate their tender ministrations more than the sexually blasé Marie. What they get instead is a deeply scarred woman who uses their attention to stage one last hurrah before going out with a bang.
Sarandon is mesmerizing and haunting. She takes this movie to a whole ‘nother level. What was mostly a bittersweet dark comedy buries its fangs right in your neck. It shows that, despite the silliness, this is the story of what prison can do to people.
Nearly everyone is an ex-con; Marie never went to jail but was basically the prisoner of the hair dresser (a hammy Jon Hamm) who acted as her pimp. We see how isolation, violence, and institutional marginalization stunts our characters. They’ve all been hollowed out by the experience, to greater or lesser degrees. Trying to fill that hollow place is literally and metaphorically the whole story.
You Know, Strikes and Gutters.
The Jesus Rolls is an odd, chimerical beast. I was fully expecting it to be a spectacular failure. In a way, a largely inconsequential way, it is. It’s certainly not the continuing adventures of the Jesus Quintana you’d expect from the title. Nor is it in any way a successor to The Big Lebowski, spiritually or otherwise. But in the end, it’s better for it.
There’s a lot of stuff rumbling around on the inside of The Jesus Rolls. It can be messy, and its gender politics and ethnic appropriation will likely rankle more than a few viewers. For all its flaws, it does acquit itself nicely in several ways.
The music is pretty great, mostly adopting the Chicano rock from Jesus’ Lebowski scenes. The film is often intentionally, ironically funny in places. The acting is good on balance; Turturro can be a bit heavy handed, but the supporting cast is packed with talent. Susan Sarandon shows again that she’s one of the best actresses out there. In the end, it all works towards addressing a deeper theme of incarceration and its consequences, without sentimentality but with empathy. I really enjoyed it.