The Backlash Backlash Movie 

What's Missing from Jesus' Son

SORRY GUYS, but what comes around goes around. After, oh, a lifetime of movies where women are cast as "the girlfriend," movies where they are undressed quickly by horny male hands, then flop around motel rooms in their underwear; movies where they stand on the sidelines and wince and squirm and get thrown out the door only partially dressed and stand begging in the cold for more clothes; movies where women are shot by men, screamed at, introduced to drugs, and saved by men, well, here's the inevitable.

The backlash backlash movie.

Jesus' Son has the same name as the book, a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, but if you know the book, you'll notice some things missing in the movie.

Risk. Balance. Balls.

In the book, the narrator stays balanced between being attractive and being horrible. The reader is always drawn in by his sensitivity and then instantly repelled by a momentary blurb of truth, one terrible slip where we see behind the narrator's big brown eyes. In the book, in the abortion clinic, when the narrator is told that his girlfriend is resting, that she's not dead, he responds, "I kind of wish she was."

In the book, the narrator holds a woman face down on the floor with a gun pressed to her head while she begs and pleads for her children asleep in the next room. The narrator fantasizes about forcing an old woman into an oven until her face bursts into flames. He fantasizes about raping a Mennonite woman in her bathroom, but only if he can wear a mask. He picks fights over pocket change. He dances or dates or does a different woman in almost every story. He almost chokes an effeminate old man he meets in a public library. He steals Social Security checks. He lies to his girlfriend, telling her he's had a vasectomy so her unborn baby has to be somebody else's child.

The point is, he does things, terrible things--offensive things, and the reader is always being seduced by his sweet insights and vulnerability and then being shocked into realizing that when you love an addict, you love a part-time monster.

A funny, pretty, charming monster.

The movie is another story. In the movie (starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, directed by Alison Maclean, screenplay by Elizabeth Cuthrell), the narrator sits eating children's breakfast cereal out of the box while his girlfriend shows him how to shoot up. Later, she saves him from an overdose.

In the book, the narrator backs a woman behind an air conditioner, opens her pants and puts his hands inside. In the movie, it's Morton who pulls Crudup aside, opens her own pants and puts his hands where she wants them.

In the movie, the narrator only errs by accident. He's the big doe-eyed victim, abandoned by Morton twice: first when she leaves him for another man, then when she commits suicide.

He weeps intensely after accidentally killing a litter of baby rabbits. His only action, when he punches Samantha Morton in the stomach, seems almost accidental and occurs only after she dances around him, screaming obscenities.

Through all this, Crudup cowers. He pulls his head down into his shoulders and sits with his hands squeezed together between his legs in the classic body language of a man wishing he had a vagina.

In the book, when he sees a shirtless man and gets an erection, we're shocked. It's the last response we'd expect. The character is suddenly deeper than we can ever understand. A realistic person.

In the movie, he's bossed around by female nurses, he's seduced by Morton, he's finally redeemed by a crippled Holly Hunter. The fact that a shirtless man makes him spring a boner, well, what's another emasculation after all that?

This isn't the book. This is the new and improved, loveable, huggable, highly marketable Jesus' Son. Now, it's what the movie industry calls a "date flick."

Do not go expecting to see Jack Hotel, the book's big male character with his shining helmet of blond hair and his olive-green suit. Don't go expecting to see the Greek bellydancer, or the horny newlywed bride, or the dwarf; all the other women the narrator sleeps with. They're all written out.

What's here is a nice monogamous love story between two attractive junkies.

People who know Denis Johnson say he likes the movie and was very cooperative in the production. Maybe this is why they cast him as the man who wanders into the hospital with a knife stuck up to the hilt in his eye. A knife stuck in him by a woman.

If only to see Denis Johnson, yes, you should see this movie.

Beyond that, just relax. In the first scene, the narrator admits he has a gun tucked in his pants, but says he's too afraid to use it.

Still, you'll want to shout: Come on, Billy, take a chance. Whip out your gun. Do it. Do something.

Jesus' Son is currently playing through July 27 at Cinema 21.

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