There’s a scene in The Jesus Rolls where John Turturro, as the title character, attempts to recreate his famous bowling ball-licking scene from the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult-classic The Big Lebowski, which this film is (technically) spun-off from. And in that moment, we realize – as if we had to be told – that The Jesus Rolls is made by lesser filmmakers. Even an incredibly simple shot like this is executed so inferiorly to the original over 20 years ago. Everything from the lighting to the timing to the angle of the shot ensures that it doesn’t play out nearly the same way. Partially because, at this point, we now know too much about our previously mysterious character.
Turturro, who writes, directs, and stars in The Jesus Rolls was insistent this movie be made. Jesus, an extremely minor character in The Big Lebowski, was definitely a scene-stealer, but was there enough for an entire film about him? I guess when there’s enough passion and money behind a project, it turns out just about anything can be made. Where The Big Lebowski was a quasi-satire on war politics and paid homage to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, The Jesus Rolls is a remake of Bertrand Blier’s controversial 1974 film Going Places (Les Valseuses), the title itself a French euphemism for testicles.
Jesus Quintana is finally released from of prison for a variety of felonies, one of which helps explain the pedophile angle from Lebowski, no doubt included here to make the prospect of him as the title character more palatable. He’s picked up by his friend Petey (Bobby Cannavale). The two decide to steal the classic car of a famous hairdresser, Paul Dominique (Jon Hamm), and go joy riding. They soon end up meeting Marie (Audrey Tautou), a French prostitute, and the three partake in hedonistic activities and petty crime, receiving very little consequences along the way.
If this sounds like fun, it’s not. We’re never taken on any type of ride doing adventurous things or meeting interesting personalities. Instead, we’re stuck in three or four locations as these characters relentlessly delineate matters of sex in a very flippant manner, sometimes graphically so. The movie seems to be even more obsessed with sex than the horny teenagers in Porky’s.
Where the Coen brothers showcased their masterful knack for hooking us into a story about characters who would have otherwise been unlikable stereotypes, The Jesus Rolls gives us nobody to like. You can have likable characters who do unlikable things, but in this film, we have unlikable characters who do things that are even worse.
The cameos come flying at us and we start to wonder what kind of favors Turturro is cashing in here. Along with Hamm, Susan Sarandon, J.B. Smoove, Christopher Walken, Pete Davidson, and Tim Blake Nelson all appear very briefly. Sarandon, in her short stint, is probably the best thing about this entire movie.
Don’t let the poster fool you, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with bowling. Neither did its predecessor, honestly. At least in The Big Lebowski the bowling alley served as, among other things, an ironic dichotomy to the ridiculous events that were happening outside. A constant, perhaps. And we were at that location more than any other. But in The Jesus Rolls, which has no involvement from the Coen brothers (apart from their blessing), a bowling alley doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film.
Even worse, the scene only lasts about 3 minutes, and we never return there. This is no doubt an insignificant issue, but also an inadvertent microcosm of the problems with the film since it takes awhile to get anywhere, really. That and it allows the film’s marketing to use the character licking a bowling ball on all the advertising, which is misleading.
I don’t mind watching movies with no point, but it would be nice to be entertained along the way. For those of you who thought The Big Lebowski was messy and sporadic, this film is ready to make you eat your words. While trying to replicate the intentional scatterbrained tone of its predecessor, The Jesus Rolls ends up being completely directionless. There’s no hook, and even worse, there’s almost no plot. And by the time the hook does arrive with about 30 minutes left, Turturro and company act like it’s been there the whole time.
Much like The Big Lebowski, this film doesn’t give us a satisfying ending either, but that decision appears less justified in this case. The Jesus Rolls somehow refrains from giving us the conclusion we want. Worse, it’s right there for the taking, but we end up getting something even more ludicrous instead.
I can see a world where The Jesus Rolls could work as a TV miniseries, not operating under a strict guideline, abiding by the rules of two completely separate film universes. As a result, this movie is the epitome of unnecessary and a total vanity project for Turturro. I can relate. In college, the first film I ever wrote was a short adaptation of the Eagles song “Hotel California”. I was so strict to follow the story and symbolism from the source material that I ended up making a movie that was more self-parody than anything else. So, with a little editing and voiceover work, I turned the project into a very intentional farce. The Jesus Rolls definitely borders on self-parody, but unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t get the chance to make it intentional at all, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what in the world we’re watching.