FILM REVIEW – THE JESUS ROLLS. With John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Jon Hamm, Susan Sarandon. Written and directed by John Turturro. Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and brief nudity. 85 minutes.
John Turturro’s purple-jumpsuited pederast Jesus Quintana had less than five minutes of screen time in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski.” Another picaresque digression in a movie that on the surface appeared to be assembled of nothing but such distractions – don’t get me started on the secret structural genius of “Lebowski” or I’ll sound as annoying as its most vociferous fans — Quintana was a throwaway slo-mo gag and a prosthetic penis that clearly meant a lot to Turturro, as he’s spent the past couple decades trying to talk the Coens into revisiting the character. Now 22 years later, with the Brothers’ blessing (though not their creative input), at long last arrives THE JESUS ROLLS.
“Lebowski” fanatics are bound to be disappointed and more than a little confused, which is fine by me because a lot of those guys are as obnoxious as people who love “The Boondock Saints,” except with better taste in movies. Written and directed by Turturro, this curious spinoff has little interest in revisiting the Coens’ zonked Raymond Chandler revisionism and instead turns out to be an almost scene-for-scene remake of Bertrand Blier’s breathtakingly tasteless 1974 counterculture comedy “Going Places,” which starred Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as what Roger Ebert called “two loutish, brutal and unclean young men” stealing cars and enjoying assorted acts of sexual deviancy up and down the bourgeoisie countryside.
“The Jesus Rolls” was for a long time also titled “Going Places” until the distributor changed it to further emphasize the “Lebowski” connection. But the French title of the original translated to a slang term meaning “Balls,” which was far more fitting as the 1974 film is basically two dumb testicles clanging into each other for two hours and I should probably be ashamed of how hard I laughed at it. Turturro’s remake offers the curious spectacle of scenes from Blier’s film being recreated almost shot-for-shot – right down to identical costumes at times – except now starring Jesus from “The Big Lebowski” and Bobby Cannavale as his lunkhead partner, Petey. (The heedless, wanton sexuality has been tamped down somewhat from “1970s French film” levels but remains off-the-charts for an American movie of our neo-Puritanical era.)
Turturro is 63 years old and Cannavale turns 50 this year, so the horndog shenanigans have a decidedly different, somewhat sadder affect than when they were enacted by the then-twentysomething Depardieu and Dewaere. We are however relieved to learn that Quintana’s infamous incident with the eight-year-olds has been ret-conned to a misunderstanding at a urinal for which he was unfairly imprisoned, and that the enormously endowed Jesus actually has a happy, healthy attitude towards having as much sex as often as possible, but with adults only. He even tries to put the moves on Petey, explaining “it’s okay when friends do it.”
Fresh out of jail, these two hook up with a hotsy-totsy hairdresser played by Audrey Tautou, who despite 347 previous sexual partners and plenty of concerted effort from Jesus and Petey, has yet to achieve orgasm. They’ve stolen a vintage car from her rich jerk boyfriend (Jon Hamm, going all in) who promptly shoots Petey in the behind, grazing his scrotum so that Cannavale spends the first half hour of the movie screaming “Ow, my balls!” and worrying that he’ll never again get an erection.
“The Jesus Rolls” sprints haphazardly through Blier’s loosey-goosey narrative, rushing through an obligatory checklist of “Lebowski” references early on as if getting them out of the way, before ditching the bowling alley altogether for a progression of atonal episodes (and usually group sex) with celebrity guest stars and famous friends of the filmmaker. The finest of these finds Susan Sarandon in the role Jeanne Moreau played in the original picture, bringing much-needed ballast to the lewd proceedings with a mysterious sadness behind her eyes. It’s a killer cameo, and if I may say so, the 73-year-old knockout throws herself into a threesome with great gusto.
Turturro is one of our finest actors and a most perplexing filmmaker, with an attitude towards onscreen sexuality more in tune with European films of his youth. His oddball 2007 musical “Romance and Cigarettes” had James Gandolfini singing Springsteen songs to woo Kate Winslet at her most hubba-hubba carnal (and yet somehow with this setup it was not the greatest movie ever made.) Turturro also quite generously cast himself as a sex worker servicing Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara in his 2013 “Fading Gigolo,” in which Woody Allen played his pimp. What these movies have in common is that they sound way more entertaining than they actually are, and I suppose one might say the same for “The Jesus Rolls.”
Yet I can’t help but feel a strange affection for this misbegotten picture, while also breathing a sigh of relief that Turturro wisely chose not to replicate the scene from the 1974 film in which the boys cheerfully relieve a teenage Isabelle Huppert of her virginity. It’s just such a screwy idea shoving a random Coen Brothers’ character into one of your raunchy world cinema favorites, like remaking “Time Me Up! Tie Me Down!” with Mike Yanagita from “Fargo.” I must admit that Jesus was never my favorite part of “Lebowski,” but his sunny, anything-goes disposition kind of grew on me here, just hanging out all happy with his hairnet and his giant wang. One might even say that he abides.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.