A remake of a controversial 1974 French comedy that also doubles as a feature-length spin-off for a character who appeared in two scenes of a Coen brothers movie 22 years ago, “The Jesus Rolls” is a picaresque curio about an accused pedophile named “The” Jesus Quintana — a cartoonish Puerto Rican man played by the film’s Italian-American writer-director — who gets out of jail, reunites with his best friend, and immediately embarks upon a sweet and breezy crime spree that’s fueled by stolen cars and borrowed women. In other words, virtually everything about John Turturro’s eccentric new movie feels like it belongs to another time.
That isn’t always a bad thing, of course. The freewheeling Jonathan Demme energy only grows more infectious as the film drifts along, Émilie Simon’s buoyant flamenco score finds the zest in each scene, and the lightly fantastical “none of this matters” attitude feels like manna from heaven in an age of interconnected cinematic universes (Turturro’s utter disinterest in rehashing “The Big Lebowski” is one of the best things about this whole strange enterprise). There’s a fine line between “nostalgic” and “retrograde,” and “The Jesus Rolls” weaves all over it until an axle pops loose and the movie crashes into a tunnel. Mileage will vary more than usual, but it’s hard to stay mad at something that starts with the Gypsy Kings, ends with a freeze-frame, and swerves in an unexpected direction whenever you feel like it’s running out of gas (a sex scene between Pete Davidson and “Amélie” star Audrey Tautou was extremely high on the list of things this critic never thought he’d live to see, but in retrospect it seems almost inevitable).
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If “The Jesus Rolls” is meant to stand alone, it first has to offer one very important corrective to “The Big Lebowski.” Jesus Quintana — described as a “pederast” during his two seconds of screen-time in the Coen brothers’ classic — is innocent. Well, he didn’t intentionally expose himself to a random child, at least. It was all just a big misunderstanding; a mix-up between an overprotective father and a strange criminal who doesn’t recognize any kind of social boundaries whatsoever. Turturro’s film may not be politically correct, but it stops short of asking viewers to fall in love with a convicted pedophile. No, the Jesus is just a hedonistic sweetheart who believes that all things in life are meant to be shared; he’s basically a chaotic neutral version of the Dude, but with cornrows, and Turturro finds plenty of genuine pathos underneath all of that vaguely stereotypical Puerto Rican affect (some people will understandably find this problematic in spite of the film’s irreverent spirit, but I’ve enjoyed watching Turturro play broad Jewish caricatures way too much to be offended on their behalf).
And then there’s Jesus’ number one disciple Petey (Bobby Cannavale), who’s nothing if not down to clown. An oafish, slack-jawed yutz whose job is to make Jesus seem more lovable and serve as his Sancho Panza, Petey is happy to go along for the ride wherever it takes him, but he’s also too hobbled to go anywhere on his own. You see, Jesus has a little disagreement with a preening hairdresser named Paul Dominique (obviously Jon Hamm), who promptly shoots Petey in the testicles as our rapscallion heroes abscond with his muscle car and his best employee (Tautou). And so two become three as Jesus leads his followers on a blissed out crime spree across Putnam County.
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Petey’s half-baked revenge plot against Paul Dominique is the only thing that even vaguely resembles a narrative throughline here, as Turturro is way more interested in exploring what it means to roll with the Jesus. And he saw Bertrand Blier’s “Going Places” as the perfect vehicle for that, even if riffing on that archaic road movie required him to tone down the sexism and vulgarity that made it such a scandal back in its day — if only a little. Most of the pit stops in this (comparatively innocent) cover version still hinge on female characters who are reduced to whatever pleasure their orifices can provide, even if Turturro softens the rapey undercurrents of Blier’s film with a palpable selflessness, and gender-switches the original’s most troubling role. “The Jesus Rolls” strives to be a crime comedy without any victims, as even its hyper-sexualized women (which is pretty much the only kind of women it has) are just looking for someone who can make them feel alive.
And the Jesus doesn’t think less of them for it. When Tautou’s chronically unorgasmic Marie tells him that she sleeps with everyone because “that way no one gets jealous,” it makes perfect sense to him. The scene where he and Petey take turns trying and failing to make her come is weirdly chaste and even kind of cute, if only because it’s contextualized by a Sônia Braga cameo as Jesus’ indominable sex worker of a mom that helps to explain why Jesus might conflate sex with solicitidue (yes, legendary Brazilian actress Sônia Braga is in this stupid movie. So are Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, Tim Blake Nelson, J.B. Smoove, and Dr. Jeanie Boulet herself, Gloria Reuben; Turturro’s rolodex is thick as hell). He just wants to spread happiness and bowl strikes, and he can’t seem to accomplish either of those goals without licking things along the way.
But the world has passed him by during his long stint in prison, and his whole shtick has grown out of sync with the times. The Jesus is nothing less than a human anachronism, and the retrograde whimsicality of Turturro’s film makes it a fitting playground for its title character. “The Jesus Rolls” only gets more seductive as it ambles towards oblivion and textures its story with a gentle sense of cosmic justice (that’s when Davidson enters the picture), and its genial vigor gradually comes to excuse Turturro’s abject lack of style. Then again, the whole thing might not have been able to survive the immodesty of a recognizable aesthetic. This isn’t the kind of movie that strives for meaning, or insists upon its moral compass — it’s the kind of movie in which Bobby Cannavale sniffs his armpit and says “shit smells like ravioli” while bleeding from his scrotum. The sun is bright, the spirit is blithe, and the standards are low. But if you want to roll with the Jesus, the Jesus will be happy to roll with you.
Screen Media will release “The Jesus Rolls” in theaters on February 28