& & by Ray Pride & & & &

The 1970s drug culture is the setting for Alison Maclean's second feature, the likable, loping adaptation of Denis Johnson's fine 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, which plays one night only at Art Cinema at The Met on Wednesday. Billy Crudup, in yet another role resisting the stardom that his looks could confer on him, is the tirelessly sweet-hearted and soft-headed "FH" (for F--head), a well-meaning junkie who wide-eye puppy-dogs his way through life and love with a lost soul named Michelle (Samantha Morton, from Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown), a both angelic and very mortal woman. The film also documents his increasingly bizarre encounters with a menagerie of lost souls, all of whom soon agree he's earned his nickname. For instance, there's a wondrously calibrated scene involving FH, a pilled-up orderly (the ceaselessly manic Jack Black from High Fidelity), and a walk-in patient (author Johnson) with a hunting knife stabbed into his eye. It's horrifying and hilarious, showing Maclean's command over a pleasing assortment of tones.

As in her 1992 debut, Crush, Maclean works with a lucid, seemingly effortless visual style. FH and his friends hopscotch a wet, flat landscape of memory and the Midwest, and cinematographer Adam Kimmel's lighting and wide-screen compositions match the tossed-off poetry of Johnson's piercing, off-kilter dialogue. The fragmented structure, broken into distinct "stories" like Johnson's book, is threaded by FH's often-hilarious, stop-and-start voice-over, suiting the flow of remembrance in the original prose.

While there's romance, however, neither Johnson nor Maclean romanticize FH's bumblings toward redemption. FH is no junkie prince -- he's a writer in the making, it seems, with a mouthful of words and a headful of hum. He's unapologetically turning over memories in his head he hasn't been able to yet turn electric on the page as zingy verbiage. "I knew every raindrop by its name," he says in an early voice-over: "I knew everything before it happened." It's his story; he shares it compulsively.

As Maclean says, it's a story "that transforms the bleak and the ordinary into little epiphanies that are beautiful, poetic and really funny." While she's directed television episodes for series like Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's Sex and the City, her return to the big screen is long overdue. I met Maclean at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival, where Jesus' Son had one of its first showings. With only Crush to go by, I was curious if any of her feature projects since 1992 had this same kind of mordant black humor.

"Humor is always important to me," the tall, youthful Maclean says very early on a mid-festival Saturday morning. "But there are parts of the book and script and the film that are just out-and-out comedy. Like the emergency room -- out-and-out black comedy. I've never really had an opportunity to just do something that's that outright comic. That was a lot of fun. We cast it for that and encouraged the actors to be perhaps a little bigger in their performance there than in the rest of the film."

Crudup's been good before, but this is the first time he's seemed truly well-cast and well-directed. In Without Limits, his Steve Prefontaine is kind of iconic, lacking the dear complexity we get here. He manages to do it with gestures and timing and body language, not just the eccentric, wonderfully comic line readings. Maclean agrees: "I think he so understood this character. He did a lot of preparation for it and made it very personal. But I think his performance in Without Limits is pretty great. But the great thing about his character is that it has such a range. He goes through so much and changes from story to story and in the course of the film. He got to stretch himself in a lot of directions. I haven't seen him do comedy much before, and he turned out to be very skilled at that."

That's particularly true when he's playing off Jack Black, the crazed orderly in the emergency room. A tiny expression from him is a wild one from anyone else. Maclean shot Jesus' Son long before Black's explosive work in High Fidelity tagged him for stardom as well. "Oh, Jack Black, yeah. They just worked so well together," she said with enthusiasm. "I think that's true for most of the others. It was hard for Billy. Most of the actors would just come in [for the smaller parts] for just a couple of days, two or three days, and didn't really have much rehearsal. Sometimes we'd just read it on the day we were shooting it. It was quite pressured. It was more a matter of being very solid in his character and just responding to what was coming from the other actors."

Even as FH seeks a brighter path, one away from the darkness of drugs and his cracked personal history, he's a puppy dog trailing after trouble, his master. It seems a strange thing to say, but Crudup is adorable in it. Maclean smiles. "He is. He really is."

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