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Film Review: “The Jesus Rolls” Fails to Justify Its Existence

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 15th, 2020

Film poster: “The Jesus Rolls”

The Jesus Rolls (John Turturro, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.

There is a place in this world for art that celebrates anarchy, as the order of things deserves at all times to be challenged, lest we fall under the spell of complacency and its cousin, fascism. But that fact in no ways justifies the aging-male sex fantasy that is The Jesus Rolls, a movie that is simultaneously a sort-of sequel (for one incidental character, anyway) of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 The Big Lebowski and a remake of French director Betrand Blier’s 1974 Les valseuses (“Going Places” in its American release). Though familiar with the former (if not a huge fan), I have never seen the latter, but after reading its plot summary, I can attest that writer/director/star John Turturro (Gloria Bell) has, indeed, copied most of that earlier film’s structure. What may have worked (or not) 45 years ago, however, today comes across as a tired, strenuous exercise in manic shtick that goes nowhere fast and then keeps rolling along.

Turturro plays the titular Jesus, last name Quintana. When last we saw him, in Lebowski, he was, in his brief appearance, a cocksure Cuban-born bowler with a tendency to lick his balls – bowling balls, that is – and a sex-offender charge on his record. Turturro played him as a preening lizard of a man, but the Coens got one (to me) especially good visual joke in at his expense when this arrogant creature was forced to go door to door announcing his crime, the priceless close-up on his face as he marched up a doorstep good for a laugh. Now he’s back, fresh out of prison (again) and ready for more trouble.

But is he worth it? Turturro certainly thinks so. Despite my admiration for much of his career, I cannot agree. Filled with awkward dialogue, forced hilarity and unpleasant mayhem, The Jesus Rolls (out now for home-viewing purchase on disc and otherwise) is the ultimate passion project, plagued by the same errors of judgment that infect all such enterprises: the raison d’être of the entire affair is so obvious to the creator that they never bother to make sure it works for anyone not them.

Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou and John Turturro in THE JESUS ROLLS © Screen Media Films

There is plenty of talent wasted here, from Turturro, himself, to Bobby Cannavale (Amazon’s Homecoming) as his best friend Petey, to Audrey Tautou (Thérèse) as the conveniently game sex object Marie, to Susan Sarandon (Viper Club), Jon Hamm (The Report) and more. From one desperate misfire of a gag to another, with occasional detours into sometimes tragic seriousness, everyone flails around trying to make it work. It doesn’t.

The narrative, such as it is, follows Jesus’ release from prison, reunion with Petey and immediate plunge back into a life of petty crime. Lest we feel bad for spending time on a pedophile, Turturro dispenses with that notion right away in an opening bit of exposition courtesy of Christopher Walken (The Family Fang). It’s all a misunderstanding; he may be amoral, but he’d never do that. From there, we launch into an adventure of sorts where Petey and Jesus take Marie in a series of stolen cars and try to help her achieve an orgasm, something she has never had. If that sounds fun to you, along with a retrograde view of the role of women in film, then The Jesus Rolls might just work for you. If not, then I suggest you let it roll right past.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed; a film commentator for the Roughly Speaking podcast with Dan Rodricks at The Baltimore Sun; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema (available wherever podcasts are found).

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