The Jesus lives! The oddball bowling obsessive immortalized by John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski” resurfaces two decades later in “The Jesus Rolls,” a road movie every bit as eccentric as the character he played in the 1998 cult favorite. In a way, the “Lebowski” connection does a disservice to Turturro’s film — an in-spirit spinoff, made with the Coen brothers’ blessing, but definitely not a sequel — since this uneven offbeater actually has less to do with the earlier Coen comedy than it does Bertrand Blier’s wildly antiestablishment 1974 foreign-film sensation “Going Places,” of which it is a more-than-loose (and much less commercial) remake. The movie is set to reach U.S. screens in early 2020, several months after opening in Italy, where it premiered as a pre-opening event for the Rome Film Festival.
A little of Jesus goes a long way, whereas Turturro’s over-the-top Puerto Rican caricature occupies every scene of a movie committed to challenging expectations about machismo and the very stereotypes from which the Jesus character was born. With his signature strut, hairnet-covered cornrows, purple-painted pinky nail and disarmingly high voice, Jesus Quintana may seem like a big joke to some (he was played that way in “The Big Lebowski”), but Turturro believes in him as a real, complex human being. With that in mind, the writer-director-star picks and chooses situations from Blier’s controversial novel “Les Valseuses” to fuel this freewheeling joyride, about a pair of long-haired rabble-rousers who steal cars, stir up trouble and harass women at every stop.
Such wild behavior made a certain amount of sense coming from two guys in their early 20s (Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere played the pair in “Going Places”) at a time when the youth were rebelling against the establishment, and before men were expected to know better. Here, they’ve been aged forward, with Bobby Cannavale occupying the other role, and the political incorrectness is more of a problem. Still, Turturro’s a softie at heart, and his respect for women comes through even in strange scenes — like the one where Sônia Braga embodies the source of Jesus’ mother-whore issues — that walk the tonal high wire Blier was so committed to flouting.
If you’ve never seen either “Going Places” or “The Big Lebowski,” who’s to say what you would make of this peculiar outing, which opens with Jesus preparing to leave Sing Sing, the correctional facility in upstate New York. During an exit interview with the prison warden (Christopher Walken, who gives what turns out not to be the weirdest performance of an ensemble for once), the film cuts away to reveal the circumstances of the indecent exposure charge that prompted Walter to dub him a “pervert” and a “pederast” in “The Big Lebowski.” Even if the situation — which involves an 8-year-old and a public bathroom — is presented as a misunderstanding, the movie certainly could have done without showing it.
Turturro’s decision to include that scene serves as an early indicator of the off-color unpredictability of what lies ahead. But it also establishes that Jesus already has two strikes against him — and not the bowling kind, for which he’d become something of a legend while in lockup. One more run-in with the law, and they’ll toss him back in the slammer and throw away the key. (In a nice touch, consistent with “Passione” — Turturro’s feature-length homage to Neapolitan music — the seductive Latin soundtrack’s first song is performed by two of the Gipsy Kings behind bars, rupturing any illusion of realism off the top.)
Some guys just don’t mix well with polite society. No sooner has Jesus reunited with fellow parolee Petey (Cannavale) then they are boosting a conspicuous orange muscle car parked in front of a local salon. Dominique, the hairdresser (Jon Hamm, who clearly relishes such comedic cameos), doesn’t appreciate the prank and draws a gun on the pair when they get back, wounding Petey in the process — but not before they can steal his French girlfriend Marie (Audrey Tautou, overplaying the cute card). Here it’s not so much a kidnapping as a willing getaway by all three, which conveniently solves the consent issue that complicates any viewing of “Going Places” today but erases the dangerous sense of anarchic disobedience that set that movie apart.
“The Jesus Rolls” hits many of the same beats as the earlier film, but Turturro isn’t going for the same impact at all. Unlike Blier, he doesn’t want to burn down the establishment, playing some of the French provocateur’s most shocking scenes — including one character’s suicide — in a very different key. When Jesus and Petey meet an older woman fresh out of prison (Susan Sarandon, soulful in her small role), there’s a melancholy tenderness to their encounter. And when Marie, who had frustrated the pair with her apparent frigidity, finds her ecstasy with a younger man (Pete Davidson), the two men respond not with jealousy but a newfound maturity — though they still throw her in the pond.
Not counting “Passione,” Turturro has directed five features to date, and it can be tough to put your finger on the tone of any one of them, if only because they defy easy categorization. He’s not afraid to be silly, even in discussions of sex (“Fading Gigolo” took a grown-up look at adults’ search for intimacy), and doesn’t shy away from sentimentality at a time when irony has become a kind of armor (his emotionally vulnerable blue-collar musical “Romance and Cigarettes” remains a little-seen gem). Audiences don’t seem to know what to make of Turturro’s movies, and “The Jesus Rolls” will be no different: How to reconcile its rowdy irreverence with the heart-on-its-sleeve last act?
In the end, the project doesn’t really work. The Coen brothers have a touch for the absurd, and a gift for dialogue, that’s lacking here, and without those qualities, Jesus wears out his welcome relatively early in the journey, around the time he makes a pass at Petey: “Let me have a go at it, man,” he pleads. That bisexual encounter was there in Blier’s original, but it complicates a character who doesn’t have as much dimension as Turturro seems to think. “The Jesus Rolls” winds up being what you worry it might become — a feature-length exploration of a character who was more impactful in just two scenes of “The Big Lebowski” — and while it’s destined to attract a cult following of its own, expect Jesus’ followers to be exponentially fewer in number.